IBM Corp.’s RISC-based Power Systems servers have a lengthy lineage as mid-range computers dating back to the early 1990s running older operating systems like AS/400 and the Unix-based AIX as well as a special version of Linux.

But the company is betting that with Unix’s glory days behind it, the future of the Power line is the open source Linux OS.

To prove it IBM said Tuesday from the LinuxCon conference in New Orleans that it will spend US$1 billion on Linux and open source technologies for the Power Systems servers.

The money will help IBM and customers convert legacy applications for AIX, AS/400 and i5/OS to PowerLinux, as well as to help build a Power Systems data centre in France to help European companies port their apps. It is one of 12 regional data centres IBM plans to build around the world. There are already two in the U.S. and one in China where customers can go and use Power servers and tools for converting applications

The money will also be used to support customers around the world who can’t get to those centres and want to take advantage of IBM’s Virtual Loaner Program, which “lends” members of its Partnerworld program computer time as an online service for converting Power apps.

“This is a serious investment,” said Jim Wasko, director of IBM’s LinuxTechnologyCenter. He noted that when 12 years ago IBM announced it was putting $1 billion into Linux across the company at a time when the operating system was still young and focused on x86 servers it proved to be a catalyst for open source.

This billion is concentrated on Power servers to accelerate Linux development and adoption on that platform, he said, to appeal to Internet and managed service data centre providers and those needing study systems to run analytics on big data applications.

The move follow’s IBM’s decision last month to form a group called the OpenPower Consortium to licence Power CPUs to others, including Google.

Jean Bozman, research vice-president in IDC’s server group, said in an interview  IBM’s move reflects the realities of the Unix server market around the world. While IBM counts for about 55 per cent of global Unix server revenue, the market is shrinking.

Unix servers used to account for about US$13 billion a year in sales in 2009. That’s down to about US$10 billion.

Originally created by AT&T, Unix went into commercial production in 1972 and was then made available to other companies, who quickly turned it into a proprietary operating system. IBM created AIX, Hewlett-Packard created HP-UX and Sun Microsystems created SunOS (Solaris), for example. Many elements of the operating systems were common, but each only ran on their companies’ RISC-based servers.

These systems leveraged Unix’s resilience and multithreading capabilities to run airlines, banks and insurance companies. But as Unix fragmented Microsoft Windows emerged. Windows Server wasn’t as ready for business as Unix, but servers running x86 processors it used were becoming more powerful, less expensive and, into this decade, more dependable

In 1991 Linus Torvalds began to work on a different version called Linux, one that would use the resilient principles of Unix but made to run on Intel and AMD x86 processors used in computers running Windows. Linux expanded and IBM took notice.

Today IBM Power System servers run on Power7+ processors which can handle PowerLinux as well as AIX, i5 and AS/400. But as a sign of how the market was developing last year IBM brought out two Linux-only Power servers, the 7R1 single socket and 7R2 dual socket servers. This year it added the 7R4 four-socket server.

With Linux growing “quite a lot,” Bozman said, IBM [NYSE: IBM] is also looking ahead to its next-generation Power8 processors — expected to ship next year — which will have more cores and multithreading capabilities. Perhaps through the OpenPower Consortium the Power platform would be used for other workloads, she said. Google’s participation in the consortium suggests it sees potential for using Power in its extensive data centres.

According to IDC Canada, in the last 12 months about 21 per cent of the servers shipped in this country were loaded with Linux, mostly on x86 machines. Only about eight per cent of the Power Systems sold here were mounted with Linux.

The drop in market share for servers with RISC or Itanium processors can be demonstrated with these numbers: Power System revenues in Canada during the last 12 months were down three per cent compared to the same period the year before. However, IBM’s market share in this category actually grew more than five per cent because sales of competitors’ servers dropped faster.

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