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IBM fires Power-powered Penguins at x86's weak spots

Linux-only servers to gobble piece of a $10bn pie

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Big Blue has not made any huge proclamations to date, but it is not exactly a secret that the people in charge of IBM's Systems and Software Group want the Power7 processor and its follow-ons to grab a larger share of the systems racket.

To that end, Big Blue is reviving a Linux-only variant of its Power Systems lineup with cheaper hardware and software pricing that it says gives better value on Linux workloads than an x86 setup.

The new machines, part of what will eventually be a family branded PowerLinux, are variants of existing iron that run in bare metal or virtualized mode using IBM's homegrown PowerVM hypervisor, and which have settings in their firmware that only allow Linux to boot on the machines.

That's right: the firmware prevents IBM's own AIX Unix variant and IBM i proprietary operating systems from booting, Scott Handy, vice president of PowerLinux strategy and business development, tells El Reg.

This may be a counterintuitive move, making your iron and hypervisor cheaper running someone else's operating system, but this is not the first time IBM has done such a thing, and it's a strategy that has had a certain amount of success.

The idea, explains Handy, is not to take on x86 servers in all markets and price bands, which is not even possible since IBM's Power processors do not support Microsoft's Windows Server operating system. Way back in the day, the PowerPC 6XX processors did run Windows NT 3.51 for a brief somewhat shining moment, and of course Microsoft's Power-based game consoles run a variant of the Windows OS, too.

So it is not technically impossible for Windows Server to come to Power7 chips. It is just politically and economically impossible. The best move on Big Blue's part is to find areas where the x86 platform is weak and make the Power7-based systems competitive for these specific workloads.

IBM has done a pretty remarkable job unseating Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard in the Unix server racket with Power-based machines, but this market is shrinking, not growing. And by chasing Linux-on-x86 with Power-based iron, Big Blue bags another $10bn revenue opportunity.

Handy says that of the 1.6 million or so servers that will be sold to run Linux in 2012, three-quarters will be two-socket boxes. And unless IBM does something, most of them will be Xeon machines with a smattering of Opterons.

"We stepped back and looked at the buying behavior of these Linux customers, which is different," Handy explained. "First off, we need to take price off the table and price comparably to the x86 server," he admitted, and then he said IBM had to be careful that whatever it did with the PowerLinux machines did not undermine sales of Power Systems machines running AIX or IBM i sales. "These are all designed to get incremental business for us."

AIX and IBM i customers will no doubt be a bit miffed, since Linux customers will be getting a better deal on both the hardware and the PowerVM hypervisor, which is also having its price chopped for PowerLinux machines. Exactly how much IBM is cutting pricing on the Power servers and the PowerVM hypervisor was not divulged ahead the launch, which is official on Tuesday, but IBM is talking about it today. If it is like prior IBM announcements, pricing has not actually been finalized yet.

IBM PowerLinux 72R server

The PowerLinux 72R server from IBM

IBM was able to do some fast talking with Red Hat and even managed to get Shadowman to make the pricing of its Enterprise Linux the same on the two-socket PowerLinux boxes as it charges on two-socket x86 boxes.

Red Hat charges $799 for a standard subscription on two-socket servers built with Xeon or Opteron processors; if you want to use the built-in KVM or Xen hypervisors, then you have to pay $1,199 to support up to four guest virtual machines and $1,999 for unlimited guests. If you want premium 24x7 support, raise that price by 62.5 per cent.

On two-socket Power-based machines, RHEL support costs $2,700 for a standard subscription and $4,300 for a premium subscription; this license is enabled for a maximum of 15 logical partitions using IBM's PowerVM hypervisor.

This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, but being generous Red Hat is charging at least a 35 per cent premium on Power-based machines with two processor sockets. Shadowman charges around the same premium on four-socket Power machines, too, and on mainframes, you pay $15,000 per core for one year of standard support on a System z box.

Handy says that SUSE Linux, the unit of Attachmate that now owns the other major commercial Linux distro, has not tweaked its pricing for the PowerLinux boxes and will "see how it goes". A standard support contract for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server will run you $799 per x86 server, and SUSE Linux doesn't care how many VM partitions you run it on or how many sockets are in the box. Priority support costs $1,499 per box.

Pricing for Power and Itanium iron servers for SLES support is based on per socket fees, with standard support running $850 per socket and premium support running $1,000 per socket. Red Hat does not support Itanium with RHEL 6, but does with RHEL 5. And while SUSE Linux no longer publishes its mainframe prices, they were the same as Red Hat's for many years and there is no reason to believe they have changed.

The two PowerLinux machines announced today can be equipped with RHEL 5.7 and 6.2 and SLES 10 SP4 and SLES 11 SP2.

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