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Advantage: Server Virtualization

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. –- Behind each thwack of the tennis rackets at the U.S. Open here, ahead of every lunge for a winning shot, virtualized servers are scraping, crunching and pumping mounds of tournament data with a velocity more blistering than Andre Agassi's serve.

As IBM marks the 14th consecutive year providing servers and database technology for the U.S. Open Web site and tournament, the systems vendor is volleying for some action of its own in the cutthroat world of server competition.

This year, IBM introduced a new component to the technology mix: its eServer pSeries system, based on its Power5 architecture and Virtualization Engine.

At a time when x86 server platforms, which compete with IBM's Power5 systems, are surging in popularity with customers, IBM has put its Virtualization Engine on the line. The bid? Converting customers to a rival system with a pitch about reducing application licensing costs, not to mention server maintenance costs.

John Kent, program manager for IBM's sponsorship marketing team, said this year's U.S. Open system features two pSeries servers, models p550 and p570. They are replacing Web and application servers in order to automate the Web site's infrastructure.

"The pSeries systems enabled IBM to consolidate a number of servers onto two larger servers to be more efficient for the USTA," he said.

They are balancing a wide range of workloads for the USOpen site, from Web serving and fan polling to feedback and player search applications.

The pSeries p5 servers are virtualizing the workloads via technologies, such as micro partitioning, virtual I/O server and partition load manager, in order to consolidate its (Unix version) AIX 5L and Linux operating environments onto each secure machine.

That's jargon for consolidating servers and cutting maintenance costs.

"This is about preventing server sprawl," said Adalio Sanchez, IBM's general manager of pSeries Systems and Technology Group. Before, each server required its own I/O , own Ethernet and applications to crunch the data. "It became a mess on the backside. Now, with virtualizing, there's an elegance of what you have in the backend."

But it's more than that, he added. "It's about the next frontier in the Unix-based world: managing workloads in real time."

Virtualization has been around since the mainframe days. Indeed, IBM essentially migrated the technology from its mainframes when it launched its Power architecture in 2001. Today, some 45 percent of its p570s are shipping with virtualization features turned on for customers, according to IBM.

Sensors capture data on Gilles Muller's serve in his defeat of Andy Roddick (Photo: Gene Hirschel).

As the workloads on last year's U.S. Open servers migrate over to IBM's current pSeries, "every application now thinks it has its own server," Kent said during a media tour here. That means one application license can be spread across a number of machines. Software vendors are taking note.

"The system is giving us the ability to consolidate our applications onto one server, making it easier for us to manage our technology requirements," said Jeffrey Volk, director of advanced media for the USTA.

It really does give companies much more flexibility and scalability with systems, at a time when traffic is expected to soar to 15.4 million unique visits over the tournament's two-week stretch, Volk added.

Additional IBM technologies behind this year's USOpen.org Web experience include an integrated xSeries system and the IBM iSeries 520 system, which is running the new feature this year: a Point Tracker database, as well as the USOpen.org Internet scoring system, content publisher and staging server.

Point-tracker gives fans a virtual, real-time, center-court seat for select matches with an animated graphics tool that recreates the trajectory of every shot.

For example, on-court cameras capture and record ball position data for every forehand, ace and volley, which is immediately fed into the IBM scoring system, officials here explained.

Crunching the data, including serve speed, before sending to the USOpen.org site (Photo: Gene Hirschel).

Once integrated with the scoring data, the shot data is then pushed to the Web site to enable visitors to follow the action on the IBM On Demand Scoreboard.

"In a way, having Power5 involved in the U.S. Open is basically a horn-tooting exercise," said Charles King, senior analyst with research firm Pund-It Research. "But to be fair, the tech is pretty cool stuff."

It comes at a time when Power5 adoption rates, especially for Unix systems, are tilting IBM's way. Sales figures from both Gartner and IDC show that IBM's pSeries and iSeries servers are gaining share.

According to Gartner's second-quarter server data, IBM grew its share of Unix server revenues on a year-over-year basis by nearly 33 percent. Although Sun Microsystems still holds the most share at 33 percent of the server market, it saw a negative 7 percent growth on a year-over-year basis.

HP is still in second place with 29 percent share. IBM grew from 23 percent share in Q2 2004 to a 28 percent share in the second quarter of this year.

"People and customers are finally getting to where they see the value of virtualization," King told internetnews.com "They see it in consolidating either server or application workloads. It's no longer experimental. It's now a commercial solution that offers reliable and predictable results."

The high-profile event gives IBM a chance to talk up its Power5 architecture as a volley to the continuing interest and sales of servers built on the competing x86 architecture.

"One of the most interesting parts of the Power5 upgrade is that it went from being able to host four partitions on Power4 to 10 on Power5," King added. "Both the Power5 servers are capable of a single processor running both IBM's Unix version, AIX, and Linux simultaneously with multiple workloads. And with the iSeries server in use, that tosses another ball into the juggling because it can run AIX, Linux and IBM's i5 operating system (which used to be its OS 400).

Click to view full-size of server utilization of the pSeries system.

"IBM just added AIX as an option, and iSeries has an integrated Intel-based server. So iSeries can actually run Windows at the same time it does anything. So it's pretty neat. It's got good wow factor."

Frank Gillet, principal analyst with Forrester Research, said virtualization is now getting more widespread attention because customers understand that virtualization can happen on any kind of server, not just fancy expensive Power5 servers or other kinds of proprietary technology from Intel.

"There's much greater interest, especially in common ways of managing virtualization across different operating systems and systems and technology. So there's a big effort under way by anyone doing hardware systems or systems management software.

They're creating a common way to manage virtualization of servers across operating systems. But it's really an early effort."

As businesses look for ways to improve their server utilization rates and do more with less, IBM is angling for its advantage.

"If you can take x number of x86 servers and collapse all that hardware onto a single box, it's a pretty interesting notion for customers," added King. "I think they're tired of the clutter. Plus the bills for power and air conditioning for the systems aren't going down. As power costs continue to rise, any company that didn't believe infrastructure costs were part of TCO, is believing it today. Virtualization is having ramifications across the industry."

Gene Hirschel contributed to this story.