Friday, August 31, 2007

IBM's Cell processor looks like a candidate to power numerous infrastructure appliances

News that IBM has announced an upgraded version of its blade server based on the Cell processor this week has me wondering about the versatile and powerful "systems on a chip"'s use in appliances, too.

We're heard some hinting and "that's a logical outcome" statements from IBM officials in the past few months, so the pairing of Cell and appliances would not come as a complete surprise. When the details emerge, the price-performance and ease of deployment benefits of these high-powered, multi-core appliances could be very impressive.

When IBM announced plans to buy Telelogic, the deal made sense to me more when the use of a specialized Cell-fired appliances was made part of a possible future portfolio. When we had Jim Ricotta on a recent BriefingsDirect SOA Insights Edition roundtable podcast, the IBM general manager of appliances indicated more specialized appliance to come from IBM, though he did not finger Cell specifically.

Appliances from IBM should be expected in more componentized infrastructure roles in the coming months, for sure. They make a great deal of sense for data and content optimization and balancing, for SOA-support functions such as ESB, registry/repository, and as discrete services support stacks in a box (a business service appliance).

Those specifying services or functions will not need to consider the underlying platforms or inherent low-level integration issues, just focus on the largely standards-based interoperability characteristics for these functional units. Appliances allow greater exploitation of open source efficiencies by the vendor, with less complexity for the end user, and a better margin for the seller (more than just service and support).

Indeed, we may see some sort of a face-off in terms of total cost and performance between virtualization approaches and appliances approaches. Why not use both? I expect that appliances may very well be filling up larger list of new requirements for enterprise architects over the next two years.

The multi-core attributes of Cell, plus the proprietary 'Synergistic Processing Elements' (SPEs) for the chips provide the means to exploit parallelism and finely tune each box for the specific functionality at hand. The fact that these specialized and closed functional components (hardware, software, integration, optimization) require much less set-up and life-time support, appeals to architects (if not integrators). They may also help on energy use and heat-dispersion issues as well.

The ability to scale by virtue of adding (or subtracting) boxes, plus the ease of swapping and redundancy -- all bode well for more appliances-driven architecture (ADA [... sorry]) for SOA and high-performance yet specialized computing at the best total cost. These attributes will be of interest to hosters, service providers and telecommunications providers.

IBM's Ricotta told our analysts that appliances can cut costs by half, compared to traditional deployment approaches. When you take such economic common sense and toss in the technological secret sauce of optimized and specialized Cell chip-sets ... the balance of Power could well shift toward appliances in the most competitive datacenters.