IBM Jumps On CI With Both Feet

Over the last couple of years, IBM, despite having a rich internal technology ecosystem and a number of competitive blade and CI offerings, has not had a comprehensive integrated offering to challenge HP’s CloudSystem Matrix and Cisco’s UCS. This past week IBM effectively silenced its critics and jumped to the head of the CI queue with the announcement of two products, PureFlex and PureApplication, the results of a massive multi-year engineering investment in blade hardware, systems management, networking, and storage integration. Based on a new modular blade architecture and new management architecture, the two products are really more of a continuum of a product defined by the level of software rather than two separate technology offerings.

PureFlex is the base product, consisting of the new hardware (which despite having the same number of blades as the existing HS blade products, is in fact a totally new piece of hardware), which integrates both BNT-based networking as well as a new object-based management architecture which can manage up to four chassis and provide a powerful setoff optimization, installation, and self-diagnostic functions for the hardware and software stack up to and including the OS images and VMs. In addition IBM appears to have integrated the complete suite of Open Fabric Manager and Virtual Fabric for remapping MAC/WWN UIDs and managing VM networking connections, and storage integration via the embedded V7000 storage unit, which serves as both a storage pool and an aggregation point for virtualizing external storage. The laundry list of features and functions is too long to itemize here, but PureFlex, especially with its hypervisor-neutrality and IBM’s Cloud FastStart option, is a complete platform for an enterprise private cloud or a horizontal VM compute farm, however you choose to label a shared VM utility.

PureApplication takes PureFlex a step further up the IT value chain by adding the ability to define and automate the provisioning of complex applications via what IBM calls “patterns” (think HP CloudMaps with improved functionality). With PureApplication patterns, via its embedded GUI designer tool, an application definition can be packaged, including all of its network and storage dependencies along with runtime policies such as scaling capabilities, resource pools, and HA policies. The resulting pattern is then available through the central deployment portal for authorized users. IBM has created a partner program for patterns and claims to have in excess of 100 participating partners at launch.

What It Means

The CI field has just become much more complicated for users and much tougher for competitors. Prior to this announcement, HP faced no real competition for its ClouldSystem Matrix and accompanying CloudMaps (which, perhaps not coincidentally, have just been enhanced to extend up to include applications as well as infrastructure). While it is not clear how much real revenue these two products have actually generated for HP, they have been a powerful centerpiece for both corporate positioning as well as for field engagement for their entire line of BladeSystem and Virtual Connect products. With this announcement, regardless of merits, IBM cuts off a convenient attack point for HP looking to penetrate its accounts. Added to this weight is the fact that this announcement is in fact extraordinarily sound, appearing in some aspects to be a slight but leapfrog over HP CloudSystem Matrix and Gen8 hardware. The advantage is probably not enough for IBM to unseat existing HP CloudSystem customers, but is certainly strong enough to halt any further encroachment by HP via Matrix as a differentiator. While it is too soon and I need more time to take an exhaustive look at the underlying hardware, it looks as if IBM has also vastly improved the underlying blade hardware in terms of integrated virtualization and management, negating another important advantage of HP’s BladeSystem offering.

PureApplication And Oracle Engineered Systems

An interesting question hanging in the wind, so to speak, is the future relationship between Oracle and IBM as concerns Oracle’s participation in the PureApplication program. IBM’s products are an attempt to provide many of the values of Oracle's Engineered Systems – carefully specified hardware/software configurations, optimization and embedded virtualization and embedded intelligence about the application and system behavior – on a non-Oracle platform. As such it competes directly with the Engineered System value proposition, and more importantly, with both Oracle’s x86 and its SPARC servers since IBM Pure supports both x86 and Power/AIX blades.

My guess is that Oracle will in the end elect to participate in IBM’s program and will provide at least a basic pattern for Oracle on PureApplication as a way of staving off continual competition with DB2 and SQL server, which will certainly be represented on this platform. At the same time they will continue to enhance their engineered systems to maintain a value proposition for them.

What Should Infrastructure & Operations Professionals Do?

This is unmitigated good news for I&O professionals, with one caveat – the integrated nature of IBM’s offerings reinforce the changing nature of internal IT and the need for better linkages between I&O, app dev, and the business. All omens point to this trend continuing, and the union of CI platforms, internal private clouds, and hybrid extensions to hosted clouds will demand increasing levels of internal integration to effectively use them.

For IBM customers this announcement is unmitigated good news, and for HP customers it is an alternative to evaluate and to use as a negotiating lever.