IBM iron predicts the future

BAO boxes combine warehousing, analytics

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The smarts behind "Smart Systems"

The idea of the "Smart Systems," says Scott Handy, vice president of marketing and strategy for the Power Systems division that creates and sells Power-based servers, is to take the 8,000 engagements that IBM has done relating to workload optimization and push performance up an order of magnitude compared to general-purpose setups.

At the same time, "Smart Systems" will get these optimized systems into the data center faster because IBM will use its deep hardware and software skills and broad industry knowledge to put it all together in a way that requires fewer IT people to install and maintain.

The other idea is to keep the architecture flexible enough that it can adapt and evolve, not like a sealed server-appliance box that's so tightly integrated that it can't be changed without gutting it.

No one wants to do a forklift upgrade to move from Power6 to Power7 iron after they have this running.

The Smart Analytics System is based on IBM's Power 550 midrange servers and includes its AIX operating system, DB2 database, and various Cognos data-warehousing tools. It will come with a variety of add-on modules and, as its name suggests, is designed to be a data warehouse with analytics built in.

Using the Cognos Mixed Marketing test, the BAO box was able to deliver three times the performance of a standard n-tier setup of Cognos software and took 50 per cent less floor space. When the SPSS deal is done, IBM plans to weave in predictive analytics to the real-time analytics that were already part of the Cognos tools.

The BAO box is expected to be announced formally in the middle of September and will ship by the end of September. And it is fairly safe to assume that IBM will be charging a premium to cover some of the integration and optimization of the system components even as it does some discounting because the products are bundled.

IBM gave the impression that the Smart Analytics System will be sold using the tried-and-true "lower total cost of ownership" argument that has been used to push IBM mainframes and minicomputers over the decades.

But it's far from clear that IBM can charge a huge premium over general-purpose data warehouse and data analytics setups, even if it does offer performance and other benefits such as integrated support for the entire stack of hardware and software and a twice-a-year checkup from IBM to make sure the BAO box has all the right optimizations and has not drifted.

IBM did not provide pricing in its Tuesday announcement, and it will be surprising to see prices on the BAO box even in September. What it did say is that the cost of supporting the BAO box will be about 50 per cent lower than a general-purpose data warehouse after the installation is complete, mainly because it takes fewer database administrators, system administrators, and programmers to keep it all humming.

IBM said that it has four customers testing the BAO boxes, and one of them is a "large government agency" that's using IBM and Northrop Grumman as contractors to build a data warehouse that can process 20,000 complex queries a day, has hundreds of terabytes of active data, and 20 petabytes of information crammed into its data warehouse.

The other item IBM talked about on Tuesday, the Smart Analytics Optimizer, is aimed specifically at boosting the database-query performance of the servers that it's attached to. In the fourth quarter, this appliance - and it really is an appliance - will attach to IBM's System z mainframes through an Ethernet link. The DB2 database running on the mainframe will be able to move chunks of data over to its main memory and offload complex queries to this appliance instead of trying to run them on the mainframe itself.

The Smart Analytics Optimizer does not run on the System z Integrated Information Processor (zIIP), a so-called "specialty engine" on IBM mainframes that is about a quarter of the price of a real mainframe engine for supporting z/OS and DB2 that can accelerate certain DB2 functions.

IBM is being vague about exactly what this Smart Analytics Optimizer appliance is, but says the important thing is that it allows mainframe shops to do the kind of complex queries they want to do on mainframes but can't because when their transaction and batch applications are running, queries take hours to run.

This appliance can apparently speed up certain complex queries by as much as 50 times, thanks to vector coprocessors and in-memory processing inside the box. This means that many companies will not even have to set up a data warehouse and copy data to it to do complex queries.

This is key because you can't do real-time analytics on data that is stale because it has been copied out of production systems, and predictive analytics has to be based on the most current data available in those production apps.

IBM said that the appliance will cut the cost of the complex queries that mainframe shops want to run by two orders of magnitude. With no official prices for mainframes, it's hard to reckon what the optimizer appliance will cost. But it would be hard to be more expensive than running a relational database on a mainframe, and it has to be less expensive than a zIIP engine as well, or there's no point in doing the launch.

IBM has not said if these DB2 acceleration appliances can be daisy chained off mainframes or be used in some parallel fashion. But this would be useful. IBM would not confirm that it will support other platforms with the DB2 query appliance, but Mills hinted that it would not be difficult to support other DB2 variants running on other IBM platforms. ®

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