IBM’s Latest Hardware Aims to Make Less Work for IT Shops

Published on April 11, 2012
by Arik Hesseldahl

I don’t know if the following stat will surprise you as much as it did me, but here goes. When a company buys a server, it obviously incurs much more than just the cost of the hardware. There are a lot of labor costs associated with getting that server up and running, installing all the applications and tuning it to optimum efficiency. Then there’s ongoing maintenance: Software updates and the like.

Obviously, that’s not the part that surprises me. But here is the bit that did: When you add up all those expenses over a server’s lifetime, labor costs amount to about 70 percent of the total, according to IBM. If you had asked me, I would have guessed the cost of power would outweigh the cost of ongoing labor. Silly me.

I talked with IBM’s Steve Mills about this earlier this week. He’s Big Blue’s senior vice president and group executive for Software and Systems. It’s not uncommon, he says, for a company to take weeks or even a month between a server’s arrival and its deployment.

IBM today announced a hardware system it calls PureSystems that can cut that deployment time to hours and reduce the lifetime labor cost associated with the server by about one-third.

Basically what IBM is doing here is bringing to bear its expertise in services. Having done so well running IT services for a few thousand different companies, it has learned a thing or two about efficiency.

And it makes perfect sense when you consider that much of IBM’s $107 billion in revenue is derived from its services business. Now it’s taking some of that learning and applying it to its hardware and software business, which accounts for about 40 percent of sales.

The key feature, Mills told me, is something called the Flex Systems Manager, which is some IBM-made software that automates a lot of the set-up and maintenance work that traditionally has to be done more or less manually by one or a team of IT managers. “The purpose of the code is to do discovery. … Can I locate every piece of hardware in the frame? What are the rules for configuring it? Can I locate all the software I need and what are the rules for configuring that?” Mills told me.

All that data has been gathered into a single screen that makes the relevant information available at a glance. Mills says the system can be up and running within four hours of arriving at a company’s loading dock. That’s a bold claim.

It’s all based around patterns that IBM has seen over and over again for different types of deployments and configuration options. See them often enough and you can develop software scripts that take a great deal of the manual labor out of the process.

Sometimes companies have their own unique or wonky business processes that even someone as experienced as IBM hasn’t seen before. If that’s the case, a company can craft its own pattern and translate that into software that can automate a process that’s unique to its business or internal rules.

IBM has also teamed up with 125 independent software vendors or ISVs to develop their own patterns that clients can quickly download in order to get up and running. (IBM put out a video on that, which I’ve taken the liberty of embedding below.)

It’s also pretty diverse from a computing standpoint. IBM being IBM, the system has different hardware options, including processors from Intel or its own Power line of chips. There are also three OS options: Windows, Linux and AIX, IBM’s proprietary flavor of Unix. There’s also a wide choice of virtual machine managers: VMWare, KVM, Microsoft’s HyperV and IBM’s own PowerVM.

In the end, the point is to allow a company’s employees to spend more time working on their key lines of business and less time making the computers run properly, which is at its most basic level the IT shop’s highest mission.

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