Systems of Engagement vs Systems of Reference – Core Concept for Infrastructure Architecture

My Forrester colleagues Ted Schadler and John McCarthy have written about the differences between Systems of Reference (SoR) and Systems of Engagement (SoE) in the customer-facing systems and mobility, but after further conversations with some very smart people at IBM, I think there are also important reasons for infrastructure architects to understand this dichotomy. Scalable and flexible systems of engagement, engagement, built with the latest in dynamic web technology and the back-end systems of record, highly stateful usually transactional systems designed to keep track of the “true” state of corporate assets are very different animals from an infrastructure standpoint in two fundamental areas:

Suitability to cloud (private or public) deployment – SoE environments, by their nature, are generally constructed using horizontally scalable technologies, generally based on some level of standards including web standards, Linux or Windows OS, and some scalalable middleware that hides the messy details of horizontally scaling a complex application. In addition, the workloads are generally highly parallel, with each individual interaction being of low value. This characteristic leads to very different demands on the necessity for consistency and resiliency.

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Taking Stock of Linux – Maturation Continues

Having been away from the Linux scene for a while, I recently took a look at a newer version of Linux, SUSE Enterprise Linux Version 11.3, which is representative of the latest feature sets from the Linux 3.0 et seq kernel available to the entre Linux community, including SUSE, Red Hat, Canonical and others. It is apparent, both from the details on SUSE 11.3 and from perusing the documentation on other distribution providers, that Linux has continued to mature nicely as both a foundation for large scale-out clouds as well as a strong contender for the kind of enterprise workloads that previously were only comfortable on either RISC/UNIX systems or large Microsoft Server systems. In effect, Linux has continued its maturation to the point where its feature set and scalability begin to look like a top-tier UNIX from only a couple of years ago.

Among the enterprise technology that caught my eye:

  • Scalability – The Linux kernel now scales to 4096 x86 CPUs and up to 16 TB of memory, well into high-end UNIX server territory, and will support the largest x86 servers currently shipping.
  • I/O – The Linux kernel now includes btrfs (a geeky contraction of “Better File System), an open source file system that promises much of the scalability and feature set of Oracle’s popular ZFS file system including checksums, CoW, snapshotting, advanced logical volume management including thin provisioning and others. The latest releases also include advanced features like geoclustering and remote data replication to support advanced HA topologies.
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AMD Quietly Rolls Out hUMA – Potential Game-Changer for Parallel Computing

Background  High Performance Attached Processors Handicapped By Architecture

The application of high-performance accelerators, notably GPUs, GPGPUs (APUs in AMD terminology) to a variety of computing problems has blossomed over the last decade, resulting in ever more affordable compute power for both horizon and mundane problems, along with growing revenue streams for a growing industry ecosystem. Adding heat to an already active mix, Intel’s Xeon Phi accelerators, the most recent addition to the GPU ecosystem, have the potential to speed adoption even further due to hoped-for synergies generated by the immense universe of x86 code that could potentially run on the Xeon Phi cores.

However, despite any potential synergies, GPUs (I will use this term generically to refer to all forms of these attached accelerators as they currently exist in the market) suffer from a fundamental architectural problem — they are very distant, in terms of latency, from the main scalar system memory and are not part of the coherent memory domain. This in turn has major impacts on performance, cost, design of the GPUs, and the structure of the algorithms:

  • Performance — The latency for memory accesses generally dictated by PCIe latencies, which while much improved over previous generations, are a factor of 100 or more longer than latency from coherent cache or local scalar CPU memory. While clever design and programming, such as overlapping and buffering multiple transfers can hide the latency in a series of transfers, it is difficult to hide the latency for an initial block of data. Even AMD’s integrated APUs, in which the GPU elements are on a common die, do not share a common memory space, and explicit transfers are made in and out of the APU memory.
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Is IBM Selling Its Server Business To Lenovo?

 

The industry is abuzz with speculation that IBM will sell its x86 server business to Lenovo. As usual, neither party is talking publicly, but at this point I’d give it a better than even chance, since usually these kind of rumors tend to be based on leaks of real discussions as opposed to being completely delusional fantasies. Usually.

So the obvious question then becomes “Huh?”, or, slightly more eloquently stated, “Why would they do something like that?”. Aside from the possibility that this might all be fantasy, two explanations come to mind:

1. IBM is crazy.

2. IBM is not crazy.

Of the two explanations, I’ll have to lean toward the latter, although we might be dealing with a bit of the “Hey, I’m the new CEO and I’m going to do something really dramatic today” syndrome. IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo to the tune of popular disbelief and dire predictions, and it's doing very well today because it transferred its investments and focus to higher margin business, like servers and services. Lenovo makes low-end servers today that it bootstrapped with IBM licensed technology, and IBM is finding it very hard to compete with Lenovo and other low-cost providers. Maybe the margins on its commodity server business have sunk below some critical internal benchmark for return on investment, and it believes that it can get a better return on its money elsewhere.

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IBM Makes Major Commitment to Flash

 

Wisdom from the Past

In his 1956 dystopian sci-fi novel “The City and the Stars”, Arthur C. Clarke puts forth the fundamental design tenet for making eternal machines, “A machine shall have no moving parts”. To someone from the 1950s current computers would appear to come close to that ideal – the CPUs and memory perform silent magic and can, with some ingenuity, be passively cooled, and invisible electronic signals carry information in and out of them to networks and … oops, to rotating disks, still with us after more than five decades[i]. But, as we all know, salvation has appeared on the horizon in the form of solid-state storage, so called flash storage (actually an idea of several decades standing as well, just not affordable until recently).

The initial substitution of flash for conventional storage yields immediate gratification in the form of lower power, maybe lower cost if used effectively, and higher performance, but the ripple effect benefits of flash can be even more pervasive. However, the implementation of the major architectural changes engendered across the whole IT stack by the use of flash is a difficult conceptual challenge for users and largely addressed only piecemeal by most vendors. Enter IBM and its Flashahead initiative.

What is Happening?

On Friday, April 11, IBM announced a major initiative, to the tune of a spending commitment of $1B, to accelerate the use of flash technology by means of three major programs:

·        Fundamental flash R&D

·        New storage products built on flash-only memory technology

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HP Launches First Project Moonshot Server – The Shape of Things to Come?

 

Overview - Moonshot Takes Off

HP today announced the Moonshot 1500 server, their first official volume product in the Project Moonshot server product family (the initial Redstone, a Calxeda ARM-based server, was only available in limited quantities as a development system), and it represents both a significant product today and a major stake in the ground for future products, both from HP and eventually from competitors. It’s initial attractions – an extreme density low power x86 server platform for a variety of low-to-midrange CPU workloads – hides the fact that it is probably a blueprint for both a family of future products from HP as well as similar products from other vendors.

Geek Stuff – What was Announced

The Moonshot 1500 is a 4.3U enclosure that can contain up to 45 plug-in server cartridges, each one a complete server node with a dual-core Intel Atom 1200 CPU, up to 8 GB of memory and a single disk or SSD device, up to 1 TB, and the servers share common power supplies and cooling. But beyond the density, the real attraction of the MS1500 is its scalable fabric and CPU-agnostic architecture. Embedded in the chassis are multiple fabrics for storage, management and network giving the MS1500 (my acronym, not an official HP label) some of the advantages of a blade server without the advanced management capabilities. At initial shipment, only the network and management fabric will be enabled by the system firmware, with each chassis having up two Gb Ethernet switches (technically they can be configured with one, but nobody will do so), allowing the 45 servers to share uplinks to the enterprise network.

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Windows 8 & Lenovo – The Good, the Bad and the Bugly

I recently bought myself a Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 running Windows 8 because I want a tablet device that can really run Windows and PowerPoint when I need them, and I have found all the iPad Office solutions to be lacking in some fashion. When I saw the new Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, it was love at first byte.

Like in all relationships, some of the new has worn off, and since it’s “Internet time”, it has only taken a couple of weeks as opposed to years to see my partner in a more realistic light.

So, here is my list of the good and the bad (architecturally, structurally) and bugly (things that can probably be fixed).

The Good – Excellent Hardware, Fluid and Attractive Interface

There are many good things to say about this combination:

  • It’s the lightest Windows device I have ever owned, and its general performance and usability is light years ahead of a horrible Netbook I bought for one of my sons about two years ago.
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HP Shows its Next Generation Blade and Converged Infrastructure – No Revolution, but Strong Evolution

With the next major spin of Intel server CPUs due later this year, HP’s customers have been waiting for HP’s next iteration of its core c-Class BladeSystem, which has been on the market for almost 7 years without any major changes to its basic architecture. IBM made a major enhancement to its BladeCenter architecture, replacing it with the new Pure Systems, and Cisco’s offering is new enough that it should last for at least another three years without a major architectural refresh, leaving HP customers to wonder when HP was going to introduce its next blade enclosure, and whether it would be compatible with current products.

At their partner conference this week, HP announced a range of enhancements to its blade product line that on combination represent a strong evolution of the current product while maintaining compatibility with current investments. This positioning is similar to what IBM did with its BladeCenter to BladeCenter-H upgrade, preserving current customer investment and extending the life of the current server and peripheral modules for several more years.

Tech Stuff – What Was Announced

Among the goodies announced on February 19 was an assortment of performance and functionality enhancements, including:

  • Platinum enclosure — The centerpiece of the announcement was the new c7000 Platinum enclosure, which boosts the speed of the midplane signal paths from 10 GHz to 14GHz, for an increase of 40% in raw bandwidth of the critical midplane, across which all of the enclosure I/O travels. In addition to the increased bandwidth midplane, the new enclosure incorporates location aware sensors and also doubles the available storage bandwidth.
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IBM Embraces Emerson for DCIM – Major Change in DCIM Market Dynamics

Emerson Network Power today announced that it is entering into a significant partnership with IBM to both integrate Emerson’s new Trellis DCIM suite into IBM’s ITSM products as well as to jointly sell Trellis to IBM customers. This partnership has the potential to reshape the DCIM market segment for several reasons:

  • Connection to enterprise IT — Emerson has sold a lot of chillers, UPS and PDU equipment and has tremendous cachet with facilities types, but they don’t have a lot of people who know how to talk IT. IBM has these people in spades.
  • IBM can use a DCIM offering  — IBM, despite being a huge player in the IT infrastructure and data center space, does not have a DCIM product. Its Maximo product seems to be more of a dressed up asset management product, and this partnership is an acknowledgement of the fact that to build a full-fledged DCIM product would have been both expensive and time-consuming.
  • IBM adds sales bandwidth — My belief is that the development of the DCIM market has been delivery bandwidth constrained. Market leaders Nlyte, Emerson and Schneider do not have enough people to address the emerging total demand, and the host of smaller players are even further behind. IBM has the potential to massively multiply Emerson’s ability to deliver to the market.
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On the Road with DCIM – Affirmation & Embellishment of Our Underlying Thesis

I was part of a Forrester Team that recently completed a multi-country rollout tour with Emerson Network Power as they formally released their Trellis DCIM product, a comprehensive DCIM environment many years in the building. One of the key takeaways was both an affirmation of our fundamental assertions about DCIM, plus hints about its popularity and attraction for potential customers that in some ways expand on the original value proposition we envisioned. Our audiences were in total approximately 500 selected data center users, most current Emerson customers of some sort, plus various partners.

The audiences uniformly supported the fundamental thesis around DCIM – there exists a strong underlying demand for integrated DCIM products, with a strong proximal emphasis on optimizing power and cooling to save opex and avoid the major disruption and capex of new data center capacity. Additionally, the composition of the audiences supported our contention that these tools would have multiple stakeholders in the enterprise. As expected, the groups were heavy with core Infrastructure & Operations types – the people who have to plan, provision and operate the data center infrastructure to deliver the services needed for their company’s operations. What was heartening was the strong minority presence of facilities people, ranging from 10% to 30% of the attendees, along with a sprinkling of corporate finance and real-estate executives. Informal conversations with a number of these people gave us consistent input that they understood the need, and in some cases were formerly tasked by their executives, to work more closely with the I&O group. All expressed the desire for an integrated tool to help with this.

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