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IBM facelifts i/OS for midrange gear

Power system nip and tuck

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It might have come out with a slightly different name and a little later than expected, but Big Blue has tweaked its proprietary midrange operating system for Power-based systems with the i 6.1.1 release.

The word on the street a little more than a year ago was that Big Blue would be packaging up some feature enhancements and patches and would roll out an interim i 6.1.5 interim release of the venerable OS/400 operating system (now known simply as IBM i) sometime in the first half of 2009, maybe in May, to be followed up with an i 6.2 full release in early 2010, perhaps in January. This information came out of people attending the i variant of the Power Systems Technical University in Chicago in September 2009, and the rumors were reasonably credible.

The rumors also turned out to be untrue, inasmuch as a rumor can ever be said to be true until a vendor actually commits to a release schedule and naming convention.

As part of the Dynamic Infrastructure marketing blitz this month, when IBM had no Power Systems server announcements to speak of and which was not quite blitzy enough to get people to stop talking about the insider trading scandal that has caught Bob Moffat, formerly the general manager of IBM's System and Technology Group, Big Blue released a little something called i 6.1.1.

The i 6.1.1 operating system began shipping to customers on October 23. As was expected more than a year ago, the point release of the operating system included enhancements relating to the Virtual I/O Server, which as the name suggests is a program that runs in a logical partition that is used to virtualize the I/O that other logical partitions in a machine (the ones doing real work) makes use of to talk to disks and tapes attached to the physical server.

Virtual I/O Server, or VIOS for short, comes out of the AIX side of the Power Systems house and is basically alien to OS/400 shops. But if you want to run i 6.1 on a Power-based blade, you have to use VIOS as the virtualization layer to talk to disk and tape and networks because i 6.1, for whatever reason, was not ported natively to the J series of Power6 and Power6+ blade servers. Ditto for selected external disk arrays, which can only be attached to i 6.1 through VIOS.

IBM uses VIOS so it can take some shortcuts. The company writes a driver for VIOS to talk to a specific Fibre Channel interface card, and then puts a virtual interface card in an AIX, Linux, or i partition that communicates with the real Fibre Channel card, but does so in an emulated way. The thing is, this is great for IBM, because it cuts down on the work it needs to do, but not so for i shops that have paid the price because they are forced to use a piece of software that they have no familiarity with.

Ditto for business partners. Which is why a year ago, IBM started preconfiguring VIOS and i 6.1 on BladeCenter setups with Power-based JS12 and JS22 blades. As I said at the time, it had not occurred to me that IBM was not already pre-installing this software on the blades. I mean, isn't the "i" supposed to mean integration?

Anyway, here were are in October, and VIOS, which is technically a part of the PowerVM server virtualization hypervisor toolset, has indeed got some enhancements. With the i 6.1.1 update, IBM is allowing machines based on the Power6 and Power6+ processors to support redundant VIOS partitions. Apparently, not only were i shops cranky about having another layer of software standing between their i-based logical partitions and their physical I/O adapters, but they were complaining that VIOS represents a single point of failure. So now companies can set up redundant active-active mirroring of VIOS using two logical partitions. You have to be at VIOS 2.1.2 to do the mirroring.

In another related item, the PowerVM hypervisor now supports an industry standard called N_Port ID Virtualization, or NPIV. With this support, i 6.1.1 can link out through native Fibre Channel adapters in a Power Systems rack or tower server (but not a blade) and talk directly to storage area networks. The upshot now is that IBM's high-end DS8000 disk arrays and TS3100, TS3200, and TS3500 arrays can be linked directly to i 6.1.1 and their full feature sets are available to the i platform; they are not being emulated in any way.

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