What do you think of when you hear about a business using IBM? What I think is: big company, big budget, mission critical. The IBM mainframe has been around for decades for a reason. It’s not because organizations of all types—from the federal government to banks—love Big Blue. No, it's because IT organizations know that their applications running on IBM systems will run. And run. And run. Not only that, but they’re going to run fast, and they’re going to run securely.
There's another reason IBM is deployed in the largest companies and government entities: cost. Organizations requiring that much performance, scale, reliability and security are willing to pay a premium.
When IBM introduced its LinuxONE platform several years back, it delivered a solution that enabled Linux to run natively (or virtually) on its reliable mainframe architecture. And in the years since, this platform has been deployed as a foundation for cloud-native environments for some very large IBM customers.
In its latest release of LinuxONE—IBM LinuxONE Rockhopper 4—the company seems to be setting its sights on enabling smaller organizations to afford the benefits of IBM technology. How is it doing this? And can it work? I'll answer these questions and more in this article.
Meanwhile, if you want a detailed look at IBM LinuxONE, you can read my research paper on it here.
What was announced?
The Rockhopper 4 platform can be deployed one of two ways—either in a single frame (IBM's version of a rack) or in a standard datacenter server rack (42U x 19 inches). Either way, it comes pre-populated and configured for the customer. If you’re wondering why IBM didn’t design its own frame to be the same size as a standard rack, let me remind you that IBM was building server platforms for the datacenter long before they were called datacenters—and long before an x86 server existed.
Today, IBM’s ability to deliver a platform that can cohabitate in the same racks as x86 servers is a smart move. The company understands its customers' environments and is making its technology more easily consumed. Further, there's something symbolic about this deployment model—namely that the barriers between x86 and non-x86 technologies are falling in this cloud-native world. Rather than relying on siloed compute environments, the datacenter can now host different platforms for applications and database environments without being trapped by CPU architectural affinity.
What is the significance of this launch?
With the addition of LinuxONE Rockhopper 4 and Rockhopper 4 Rack Mount, IBM now has a cloud-native platform that spans all market segments, from IT organizations that have standardized on x86 to large enterprises that have invested heavily in IBM to power and protect their businesses. And there are a lot of these companies. Did you know that about 70% of global transactions (measured by value) are powered by IBM Z or IBM LinuxONE?
While IBM hasn’t said as much, this launch of Rockhopper 4 feels like a total addressable market (TAM) expander. In particular, the Rockhopper 4 Rack Mount enables IBM reps and channel partners to go into non-IBM organizations and pitch LinuxONE as a highly performant, highly scalable and highly secure cloud-native platform. Even better, they can do this with no heavy lifting—no special power requirements, no re-architecting of applications.
Why deploy IBM LinuxONE in the x86 datacenter?
Can LinuxONE run in a datacenter dominated by x86 servers? The short answer is yes. The bigger question is, why would an IT department consider deploying Rockhopper 4 for its cloud-native applications? Let’s dig a little bit deeper to answer that one.
Disclaimer: During my own IT career, I never deployed IBM technology. But from my vantage point today, I see three reasons an IT executive would want to deploy LinuxONE. The first is predictable performance that scales. Whether I have a single MongoDB-driven app or that app running alongside Oracle, Db2 and a bunch of other workloads, LinuxONE will allow all of those applications to perform consistently. These servers are designed to run at a sustained 80% utilization rate. By comparison, if you put that load on an x86 server, you’ll quickly be running into performance issues.
The second reason is related to the above. With LinuxONE, you do more with less. IBM has the testing results to show that a LinuxONE Emperor 4 system, powered by the company's Telum processor, can perform the work of up to 2,000 x86 cores. The Rockhopper? It “merely” does the work of about 1,440 x86 cores. The Linux cores that power these servers are performance beasts, allowing IT organizations to put more workloads on fewer servers to meet their service-level agreements (SLAs).
In practical terms, that means fewer servers that IT has to manage (a good thing) and lower software licensing costs mission-critical workloads require fewer cores (a great thing). When considering the “per core” licensing of many commercial database systems, and the ability for a LinuxONE core to perform so much better than an x86 core – the economics becomes very compelling.
My third reason for considering LinuxONE? Resiliency, by which I mean being able to go home from work every night knowing that my data will be available because of the fault tolerance and security built into the LinuxONE platform. There is a reason why IBM mainframes have been designed and produced since 1952. And there's a reason why organizations that put a premium on data availability and privacy continue to invest so heavily in IBM technology. It’s because IBM servers don't fail, and they don't get hacked. In the end, that’s what matters to an IT executive.
You might read the above and think that I'm pitching LinuxONE Rockhopper as a replacement for the existing x86 servers in your datacenter. I’m not. But the new offering from IBM is undoubtedly a strong complement to what you’re already running.
If I were an IT executive in today's digitally transformed world, I would initially look at LinuxONE as a deployment target for the business-critical workloads powering my organization. Those applications require high performance and “seven nines” availability. Once I started to realize the benefits of using this platform, I would be expanding its footprint in my datacenter.
What IBM needs for broad adoption of LinuxONE
IBM has a winner with LinuxONE. And LinuxONE Rockhopper makes it straightforward for traditional x86 shops to adopt LinuxONE. So should we expect to see adoption rates skyrocket in the next couple of quarters? If only life were so simple.
While LinuxONE has a lot of potential, IBM needs to be aggressive to realize that potential. IBM has historically been conservative in positioning and selling its technologies. (As an example, I'm specifically thinking about its zSystems platforms.) The company’s approach is to expand its footprint in existing customer datacenters and then expand its customer base by marketing to organizations with requirements for hardened security and reliability.
With LinuxONE, IBM doubled down on this strategy by delivering the platform first to existing customers. So when its existing customers who wanted zSystems levels of reliability and performance on an x86 architecture, IBM had an answer ready.
But IBM LinuxONE Rockhopper 4 changes the game, and IBM shouldn’t be shy about aggressively going after the x86 market. Target those companies that have embraced Linux and cloud-native approaches with a value prop that the x86 competitors can't match. Highlight the performance of database environments like MongoDB that are running in the modern datacenter. Show the incredible cost savings that can be achieved from using far fewer cores to run the same SQL databases.
Several real-world benefits can be realized with LinuxONE. The question is, will IT organizations know about these benefits? Or will they remain a well-kept secret?
The days of the x86-only datacenter are over. The open source community drives cloud-native architectures, and Linux is the OS of choice for many of them. The x86 architecture, while still dominant in the datacenter, is now hardly the only choice. Thanks to reliance on the cloud, IT administrators care less and less about the underlying infrastructure where workloads run. They care about performance, reliability and security. And this is why non-x86 architectures have grown significantly over the last few years. The result is a cloudified datacenter.
This cloudified datacenter can benefit in a big way from LinuxONE, and IBM has made adoption of its technology very easy with Rockhopper 4 and Rockhopper 4 Rack Mount. I’ll be tracking its go-to-market execution over the next few quarters and offering some perspectives.