Linux on Power—Poised for Greatness

Apr 22, 2016 11:12:45 AM

For two decades, IBM’s Power Systems family of high-performance servers has been considered the premier alternative to x86-based systems. Combining fast processing, high availability, and rapid scalability, Power Systems are optimized to support big data and cloud architectures. Popularly deployed to run IBM’s AIX and IBM i operating systems, the platform has seen stiff competition in recent years from x86-based Linux systems. In 2013, IBM responded to this challenge by investing a billion dollars into the development of enhancements to the Power line that would support Linux operating systems and open source technologies. This bold move was hailed as a strategy that would greatly improve the attractiveness of the platform and drive broader adoption.

Unfortunately, the droves of businesses expected to flock to Linux on Power have not, to date, actually materialized. While sales of Power Systems have somewhat increased, the uptick in adoption cannot be attributed to Linux availability since relatively few implementations are known to have actually been deployed with it. According to survey-based research recently published by HelpSystems, only 6.4 percent of businesses that have IBM Power servers are actually running Linux on them and only 6.1 percent are considering running Linux. There are two principle reasons the expected flood of adoption has turned into a trickle:

  • Legacy Investments – Organizations that have already invested in a particular server platform are more apt to expand their existing servers than to “rip and replace” it with a new platform.  Since x86 servers had broadly saturated the cloud server market prior to the availability of Linux-based Power servers, greenfield opportunities are relatively rare. The majority of newly purchased servers are introduced to increase the scale of existing x86 server farms. From a purely financial perspective, it makes sense to minimize the number of hardware and software architectures that must be supported. This ensures equipment compatibility and reduces the amount of training required for support personnel. By extension, it can also be inferred that organizations that have legacy Power server environments are more apt to expand their existing environments with identically configured systems.
  • Biased Perceptions – Few professions evoke strong brand loyalty like IT management. Technology professionals tend to be predisposed to preferring platforms to which they are most familiar or have previously achieved success. For instance, IT managers with extensive backgrounds supporting x86 servers will be strongly prejudiced toward adopting that environment, even if they are starting a new job or implementing a new environment. Given that most cloud managers cut their teeth on legacy x86 environments, it follows that they would be most commonly inclined to continue selecting x86 systems with little consideration of alternatives.

Of course, neither of these explanations indicate that Linux on an x86 system in any way performs better or provides greater value than that of Linux on a Power System server. In fact, there is a clear argument to the contrary.  Power Systems are faster and more extensible than x86 platforms, providing greater support for more demanding workloads such as big data and analytics. This was the primary reason it was selected to host IBM’s highly-acclaimed Watson platform. Because of the increased scalability, Power Systems also offer a prime opportunity for data center consolidation—replacing dozens of x86 systems with a single or a just a few Power Systems. Organizations that have already committed to investing in Power Systems but run AIX or IBM i would also be advantaged by transitioning to Linux. For instance, application development and portability is greatly simplified when operating on an open platform. The value of this approach has not been overlooked by independent software vendors (ISVs) which have invested into developing solutions for the platform in anticipation of market growth. Of particular note is IT infrastructure software provider, HelpSystems, which has lead the charge in supporting Linux on Power servers with its Halcyon monitoring and automation software solution.

While there remains a strong potential for broad adoption of Power Systems running Linux, adoption rates can be expected to increase slowly over time rather than in a single massive wave. As organizations establish new environments built on Linux-based Power Systems to take advantage of high-power, high-availability value of the platform, they will broaden IT professional familiarity with the solution and establish the “legacy” platforms of the future. However, this transition will only happen through attrition of existing x86 environments and only after they reach their life expectancy. IBM should continue to market Linux on Power as a premier platform with the goal of long-term market dominance rather than expecting immediate financial gains. After all, history has proven that even the best technology sometimes take a while to catch on.




For more information on how HelpSystems can help manage Linux on Power, go to



Steve Brasen

Written by Steve Brasen

Steve Brasen is a Research Director leading EMA’s practices covering endpoint management, identity management, and access management. Steve’s career at EMA follows 20 years of “in-the-trenches” enterprise experience in IT management, operational support, and engineering for high-technology, telecommunications, and financial institutions, including: MCI Worldcom, Bell Communications Research, UNIX International, Salomon Smith Barney, and Agilent Technologies.

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