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IBM packages server virtualization tools

Big Blue plans to provide essential plumbing for its utility computing vision later this year, when it debuts technology that uses its Power5 chip.

IBM will provide essential plumbing for its utility computing vision later this year when it introduces collection technology that joins management software to hardware that comes with the company's Power5 processor.

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The package, called Virtualization Engine, is designed to make IBM's Power servers better able to juggle multiple loads and provides a foundation for an infrastructure that can respond automatically to changing priorities in a company's workloads. IBM demonstrated the technology to analysts on Wednesday.

The IBM demonstration was interesting chiefly as an indicator of what's to come in the next year or two, as the technology gets fleshed out, Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said. But Virtualization Engine shouldn't be discounted as unimportant or a mere exercise in lumping technology together: "Part of this is social engineering--changing the expectation of what's got to be bundled together and starting the commoditization of these parts so they're not as expensive and rarified," he said.

Virtualization is a technology that makes computers more adaptable by breaking the tight link between software and the hardware on which it runs. It's a key part of efforts by IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and others to create a computing infrastructure that's easier to administer, more efficient, more responsive and bound tightly to corporate priorities.

However, this vision, known as utility computing, is still more idea than reality. "We're maybe two or two-and-a-half years into a 10-year transition," Eunice said. "We've raised awareness; we've got some basic tools; but we're still very much in the early-adopter, leading-edge stage."

The virtualization technology is the latest step in IBM's effort to catch up IBM's Power-based pSeries and iSeries servers--collectively code-named Squadron--with Big Blue's flagship server, the zSeries mainframe. That line, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary is famed for its reliability and price tag and has long been the technology inspiration for high-end Unix servers sold by Sun and HP.

The Squadron machines are the latest in IBM's years-long effort to gain against No. 1 Unix server seller Sun and No. 2 HP--an effort that's bearing some fruit. Squadron machines will include as many as 64 processors, twice that of today's top-end p690, and each processor will be able to run two instruction sequences, or "threads."

Virtualization Engine will debut in IBM's iSeries line in the second quarter, the company said, and later will appear in the pSeries and Enterprise Storage System products--the latter also based on Power5.

Slicing and dicing
One key mainframe feature copied by Unix server designers is partitioning, the ability to slice a server up into independent pieces that each run their own operating system. With today's Power4-based pSeries Unix servers and iSeries midrange servers, IBM could create as many partitions as there were processors.

With the virtualization technology of Power5, IBM will increase this to 10 partitions per processor. And by extending virtualization from the processor to encompass input-output as well, Big Blue will enable Power5 partitions to share connections to the network and storage systems instead of requiring a separate physical adapter for each partition.

But Big Blue has grander ambitions. When IBM first began describing the Power5 in 2002, designer Ravi Arimilli said he expected the company to slice servers even more finely. "The silicon supports as many partitions as you want," he said of the Power5 chip, and IBM will be "probably marketing 1,000 per processor."

Big Blue said it chose the less ambitious 10-partition-per-processor goal for reasons of "testing and balance." Eunice expects IBM to add more later, as systems are more thoroughly qualified.

Virtualization Engine software will run on IBM's current version of Unix, AIX 5.2, but support for the full partitioning abilities requires the forthcoming version 5.3, IBM said.

The Power5 partitions can run three different operating systems: IBM's AIX version of Unix, from its pSeries line; its OS/400, from the iSeries line; and Linux, currently supplied to IBM by Red Hat or Novell. The Power4 processor runs these same operating systems but requires somewhat different server hardware for the iSeries and pSeries lines.

The new partitioning technology in Power5 requires virtualization abilities that come through a technology called Hypervisor, which IBM brought from its mainframe. IBM is speeding up several Hypervisor abilities by incorporating them directly into the Power5 processor instead of relying on slower software, Arimilli said earlier.

The odd man out for some IBM technology is its xSeries line, which uses Intel's Xeon processors. Here, IBM has some hardware partitioning but relies on software from EMC's VMware subsidiary to handle most virtualization tasks. However, the software component of Virtualization Engine will run on xSeries machines, IBM said.

Accompanying software
In one software component, IBM is merging its server management tools into a single product called Director Multiplatform, a move similar to HP's approach with its "Nimbus" software.

Another software component is support for the Open Grid Services Architecture, a software standard to link disparate systems into a unified pool of computing power. IBM has been striving to move grid technology from the academic realm to the business realm and has built OGSA support into its WebSphere e-commerce software.

Also part of Virtualization Engine will be workload management software that can monitor a server's performance and handle "provisioning" tasks--the commissioning or decommissioning of computers, as needs vary. This software is drawn from IBM's and its Tivoli Intelligent Orchestrator products.

The workload manager service will be able to control jobs on other company's computers, not just IBM's, Big Blue said.

But the technology is still somewhat raw, Eunice said, mostly able to monitor systems but not yet to take actions based on what it observes. "But a year or two years from now, we'll be looking at something that is a real multisystem orchestrator," able to juggle jobs among many computers, he said.