IBM opens systems software lab in Manchester

PowerVM United

IBM has opened up a software development lab in Manchester, focusing on various systems programs that run on its Power Systems iron.

The lab is leveraging the bit-twiddling expertise that Big Blue gained when it bought Transitive back in November 2008.

Transitive is the commercial implementation of emulation work done in the 1990s by computer science professor and processor designer Alasdair Rawsthorne of the University of Manchester. In October 2000, Rawsthorne founded Transitive and over the next four years gathered up $24m in venture capital to create QuickTransit, a low-level emulation program that allows programs written for one architecture to be run on completely different architectures. The initial QuickTransit came in flavors of Itanium, Opteron, Xeon, and Power processors, and it allowed binaries compiled for MIPS, Power, mainframe, and x86 processors to be run on these platforms. (Read this for a full description of QuickTransit.)

A variant of QuickTransit was used by Apple to rehost applications on Intel-based Macs that had been compiled for PowerPC machines, and Sun Microsystems licensed the software to have Sparc/Solaris binaries run on Opteron/Solaris machines. IBM also licensed QuickTransit to let x86-Linux binaries run on Linux partitions on its Power-based servers.

This QuickTransit software was so dangerous that IBM could not let it fall into enemy hands, and so a year and a half ago, the company shelled out an undisclosed amount of cash to acquire Transitive.

The Manchester Systems software laboratory joins a number of other Power Systems development labs, including the main hardware and operating system labs in Rochester, Minnesota (where the AS/400 midrange box was designed and made and where Power Systems servers are still manufactured today) and in Austin, Texas (where IBM's past seven iterations of Power chips for its own servers have been designed and where its AIX Unix is created). Poughkeepsie (in New York) and Montpellier (in France) also have a hand in Power Systems development.

Power Systems manufacturing is today done in Rochester, Montpellier, Dublin (Ireland), Shenzhen (China), and Singapore. There is still some development work that is done in IBM's Guadalajara, Mexico facility, which used to be where AS/400s were made for Latin American and Asian customers before it was moved to Singapore and China.

IBM has approximately 20,000 employees in the United Kingdom, according to a company spokesperson. Transitive had 60 software engineers working away in Manchester when it brought out its first products in 2004, and the word on the street is that the Manchester lab now has around 70 people. IBM is being a bit vague about what the lab is doing now, but says the coding involves making virtualized Power Systems machines more fault tolerant, and this job is made a little easier given that IBM controls the processor, systems, hypervisor, and operating systems of the Power Systems stack all by its lonesome.

The Manchester lab is also looking at how to secure virtualized environments better so enterprise customers don't get antsy about cloud computing, and to provide the audit trails that prove logical partitions and their workloads and virtual networks are secured as they bop around public and private clouds.

What IBM has not said since it acquired Transitive is how it might deploy QuickTransit to do what it was designed to do: emulate workloads on new platforms. IBM could have long since created a line of PowerVM extensions that let Power boxes run Sparc, Itanium, and mainframe workloads, and it has shown no inclination to do so. Apple's experience with QuickTransit suggests rather strongly that the software works, and it is a wonder why IBM is not using QuickTransit offensively.

That was always the plan at Transitive - to get all sides in the server and OS racket licensing the emulator to attack each others' installed bases. The server business would have been a lot more interesting if IBM hadn't bought Transitive and sat on QuickTransit. ®

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