IBM Lotus preps small biz software appliance
Domino, Symphony, idiot-proofing
It's pandemonium out there. Cats are living with dogs. There's chocolate in my peanut butter. Software units are selling servers and calling them appliances.
Late yesterday, IBM's Lotus collaboration software unit, one of the key pillars in the company's Software Group, lifted the veil a bit on its next-generation of Lotus Foundations Start appliances, which are set to ship in December.
Caleb Barlow, senior product manager for the Lotus Foundations appliance, isn't keen on giving away a lot of the details about what comprises the guts of the machine, but he says that the box is based on an x64 architecture and that it runs a very lean implementation of Linux based on Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Sever 10.
Back in January, IBM acquired Linux appliance maker Net Integration Technologies, which was based in Toronto, for its appliance expertise. NIT had created its own streamlined implementation of Linux, called Nitix, and had an OEM agreement with IBM to distribute the Domino collaboration server atop of Nitix. After IBM brought the Nitix team on board, it selected SLES as the basis of a new set of appliances and let the Nitix team loose in the IBM hardware supply chain to create a box to run the resulting Foundations Start software stack.
The new Linux implementation weighs in at a mere 100 MB, and it's stored on a disk on module, or DOM, inside the system. (DOM is a fancy name for a flash drive with a SATA disk interface instead of a USB interface). Barlow says that IBM and the Nitix experts it acquired did a lot of engineering work with SLES to streamline it and integrate the components that are used in the appliance, which includes a virtual private network, a firewall, a MySQL database server, a Web server (which one, IBM is not saying), and a print and file server. The mail server is Domino, and it is not stored inside that 100 MB DOM, but rather on the disk drives inside the appliance.
The appliance supports up to seven disk bays, and up to 7 TB of disk capacity. It also includes something IBM calls intelligent disk backup. Rather than using tape backup, IBM has created an anodized aluminum case for a removable hard disk that is encrypted and that does continuous incremental backups of the key software configuration information for applications and their data (as much as you can cram on a single drive). Customers can remove these IDB disks and store them off-site for emergencies instead of messing around with expensive (and sometimes not successful) tape backups. Every disk drive in the appliance is automatically populated with a backup copy of the Linux stored on the DOM, so even if the DOM fails, it still boots up.
Idiot Proofing Made in China
The Lotus Foundations appliance, which is made in IBM's factories in China, is meant to be installable by idiots - er, small and medium businesses with limited IT expertise and business partners who are going to try to make a living selling lots of these boxes rather than put in billable hours doing break/fix maintenance on hardware and software sold on commodity X64 servers.
The box doesn't have a screen, a keyboard, or a mouse, and it includes enough smarts that it can boot off the DOM, find the Internet, find the LAN and its PCs, set up a VPN and a firewall, and create a DHCP server if it can't find one. Once it does that, an LCD screen on the front reads out the IP address on the network for the appliance, and you call up your channel partner and give them this IP.
They punch it into IBM's software distribution and maintenance system for the Foundations appliances, and then IBM's hosted services take whatever domain you have for Web and email serving and start feeding traffic to the appliance. The box has Domino for mail serving - which is installed with a single click - and assumes that people have Notes or Outlook clients to log into to get their email and calendar. IBM's Web-based Symphony office automation suite can be installed on the machine as well from the IBM servers, meaning customers don't have to pay for Microsoft Office if Symphony is good enough.
IBM's Lotus unit realizes that small businesses sometimes have Windows-based applications that they want to run on their servers, and that is why Big Blue is piloting the use of VMware's freebie VMware Server running in conjunction with the baby Linux inside the appliance to support Windows applications on the x64 processor in the box. (VMware Server is the kicker to the old GSX Server, which is not a bare-metal hypervisor, but a hypervisor that runs inside Windows or Linux that in turn supports guest operating systems).
IBM is being a bit cagey about the price of the Lotus Foundations appliance, since it is not available yet, but Barlow says that a five-user bundle including the hardware and software will cost around $5,000. The machine is designed to scale to up to 500 users, provided the load is not too heavy. I can't imagine that 500 concurrent Symphony users can be supported on such a machine. The current Lotus Foundations Server software stack costs $849 for five users, and the less sophisticated, non-IBM iron it runs on costs $2,499. The IBM appliance has more goodies and more capacity, and hence it is more expensive.
IBM has not said specifically when the Foundations Start appliance will ship in December, but it did say that on November 21 its Smart Business Developer's Kit - which independent software vendors will use to package up Domino applications so they can be deployed on the appliance - will be available. IBM wants to have a consistent framework for deploying and supporting software on these appliances, which makes it easier for SMBs to consume software and for partners to support their customers. ®