After nearly two years of development and more than six months of a beta spin in India - where there are some 35 million small and medium businesses that are looking to computerize their operations - IBM has finally brought its Smart Cube appliance servers and the related application software Smart Market to the United States.
The Smart Cube appliances and their related strategy, formerly known by the codename "Blue Business", seek to create server appliances that avoid Microsoft's Windows operating system like the plague. They deploy Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (on Xeon iron) or IBM's own I 6.1 operating system (for Power iron) on a range of server appliances that IBM monitors and manages remotely. They also come with a wide range - well, at some point in the future, anyway - of application software that can be automatically downloaded, installed, and managed by Big Blue in conjunction with its software partners.
The idea behind the Smart Cube is one that Big Blue has had much success with in decades-gone-by. More than 20 years ago, IBM launched the AS/400 minicomputer. It had an integrated relational database management system (which was called DB2/400 by customers), a database-aware RPG programming language (already in use by lots of customers and great for implementing business logic), a single-level storage programming model (which meant programmers didn't have to move data between memory and disks), and a slew of other features.
While the System/38 predecessor to the AS/400 had most of these features, the three things that made the AS/400 take off were a much lower price (System/38s, MIPS for MIPS on relational database work, cost several orders of magnitude more than IBM's mainframes), much more powerful machines, and - most importantly - thousands of application vendors who were ready to go to market to sell the box on day one.
The AS/400 took off like a rocket and quickly became one of Big Blue's most popular systems, peaking with over 275,000 unique customers and generating more than $5bn a year in sales for its first decade on just hardware and systems software alone and helping to drive as much as $14bn in IBM product and services revenues per year at AS/400 accounts in the early 1990s.
The Smart Cube cannot replicate that kind of success - not with the Windows server platform having the largest portfolio of applications in the world right now and certainly not with such a low number of customers. We're talking an order of magnitude more applications than the 20,000-strong OS/400 application pool at its peak, and perhaps more. And the systems business and the customers buying systems today are radically different and, in many ways, more computer savvy while at the same time less inclined to invest in the people and the hardware and software needed to create business systems. So the Smart Cube is a 2009 approximation of what IBM thinks a modern AS/400 would look like.
As such, IBM wants to start with the applications and to make the underlying iron as invisible as possible. Right now, the Smart Market application store - the iTunes analogue if the Smart Cube is an iPod - is pretty skinny. According to Matthew Friedman, vice president of marketing for the Smart Business platform at IBM, the US portion of the store has 45 applications available from 17 software houses, with the one IBM chose to emphasize at the launch being none other than Intuit and its QuickBooks Enterprise accounting software.
The Smart Market that IBM set up for the Indian market, where it started prototyping the Smart Cubes last December, has 38 applications. The key, as was the case with the AS/400, is to pair local resellers of applications with their own expertise in niches with the system and go to market with a single package.
The secret sauce in the Smart Cubes is not the iron, but rather a framework and set of common APIs that application vendors have to adhere to called the Smart Business Application Integrator. It is this systems software that allows IBM to support the SLES 10 and i 6.1 operating systems, a stack of systems software, and all Smart Market certified applications in an automated and absolutely consistent fashion. Friedman says that IBM has over 150 patents relating to Application Integrator.
"This is real automation, not just integration and bundling," Friedman brags. Such automation was a hallmark of the AS/400, which was the first machine I know of that had remote customer support, allowing IBM to reach into systems and fix them from its Rochester, Minnesota, facility over a modem line. Since then, IBM has added all kinds of proactive maintenance and monitoring services to its AS/400 and successor products, and of course, other system makers have done likewise.
The trick for IBM is that it is accomplishing this on both Linux and i platforms, and could extend this to AIX or even Windows if it wanted to. The benefit is that IBM can peddle the Smart Cubes with a single point of contact for tech support for the system and its applications (a difference that SMB shops won't care about). That contact will be IBM itself, not the ISVs whose applications are bundled. IBM is also controlling the distribution and installation of the machines through the Smart Market, and it's charging ISVs a commission on sales as well to help support the costs of the market and in exchange for lead generation.
The x64-Linux versions of the Smart Cube appliance look very much like the Lotus Foundations collaboration appliances that Big Blue debuted last November. There are two versions of this tower machine, and both of them are single-socket Xeon boxes. The Smart Cube 7200 has dual-core Xeon E3110 processor running at 3 GHz, 4 GB of main memory, four 250 GB SATA disks, and a 500 GB removable disk for archiving.
The Smart Cube 7401 has a quad-core Xeon X3330 running at 2.66 GHz with 8 GB of memory, four 500 GB SATA disks, and a removable 1 TB disk for archiving. The archiving is managed by IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager software, which can also be told to back up data over the Internet to an archive service that IBM is running for the machines.
The machine is equipped with SLES 10 SP2 and costs $4,400 in a base configuration. That price includes SLES 10, Zend Technology's Zend Core 2.5 PHP engine, a Java runtime (Java 5), Domino Utility Server Express (for LDAP authentication), the Tivoli storage management code, plus a license to DB2 Express Server 9.5 and WebSphere Application Server 6.1. IBM is also tossing in its Proventia Server IPS 1.0 intrusion protection software. Customers can add Domino and Sametime collaboration software and additional Proventia security tools for an additional fee.
The Power-i variant of the Smart Cube has the same software stack, except it is running on the i 6.1 operating system instead of SLES. It therefore supports the portfolio of RPG, COBOL, and Java applications that have been coded for and sold predominately on AS/400 and successor platforms. The other big difference is that the Power-based Smart Cube includes IBM's PowerVM logical partitioning software comes standard with the box. Friedman says that IBM will eventually offer virtual machine partitioning on the x64-Linux version of the Smart Cube, but hasn't decided what to do just yet.
While hypervisors are basically free, the tools to use them certainly are not, and that is one of the reasons why the Smart Cube Power edition has a base list price of $12,000. The i 6.1 operating system also includes the DB2/400 variant of IBM's relational database on it as well, which is not cheap and which is not a toy like the DB2-Express (formerly "Derby") database on the Linux box. Another reason why the x64-Linux Smart Cube is cheaper is that it is made in China, while the Power variant is made in Rochester.
There are three sizes of the Power-i Smart Cube, and all of them are based on the Power6 version of the Power 520 tower server that was announced last April using 4.2 GHz cores. These are not the Power6+ machines that IBM announced on April 28 of this year using slightly faster 4.7 GHz cores. None of the Smart Cube Power editions have L3 cache enabled on their chip package. The Power6+ variants of the Power 520 servers have 32 MB of L3 cache for every dual-core Power6+ chip in the box.
The Smart Cube 7227 has a single Power6 core activated, plus 4 GB of memory and four 139 GB SAS disks. It has 25 licenses for i 6.1 users. The Smart Cube 7278 has two cores activated, 8 GB of memory, six 139 GB disks, and licenses for 50 users. The Smart Cube 7279 has four cores activated (the maximum allowed in the box), 16 GB of memory, eight 139 GB disks, and eight 139 GB disks. According to the IBM spec sheets, the same exact systems software stack is available on this Power variant of the Smart Cube, including DB2 Express (which is superfluous).
Pricing for configured Smart Cube appliances are all over that place, as you can see if you browse through the Smart Market. A configured base x64-Linux Smart Cube with QuickBooks Enterprise sells for $7,745 for five users. Some of the applications get up towards the $70,000 to $100,000 range, and a number of them break through to even higher levels. Appliance does not mean inexpensive, it would seem.
IBM has not said when it will launch the Smart Cube appliances in Europe, but it is probably trying to get a core set of application providers in Germany and Italy together to flesh out the European Smart Market before it does such a launch. There is little question that IBM will want to push Smart Cubes and local applications into Russia, China, and other high-growth markets where SMBs are short on IT skills and perhaps a little longer than their American counterparts on cash. ®