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IBM Power9 Cloud: How the Cloud Is Enabling Competition and Legacy Support

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One of the big problems in competing with a dominant vendor is just getting IT to try out your technology. Few are willing to risk trying something new if what they are getting from the dominant vendor works. But the cloud is creating opportunities for challengers that we haven't seen before. Case in point is this announcement from IBM. In this they talk about putting Power9 into the cloud predominantly so they can run legacy applications, but this could also work to showcase that the advantages IBM has been talking about for years are real.

While the move to put applications into the cloud is arguably one of the biggest trends this decade, much of the activity is with relatively new platforms and applications that were designed with this in mind. There are millions of legacy applications companies aren't willing to recreate running on AIX and IBM I platforms that could enjoy the same benefits, but these were never designed for that environment and that need has largely gone unmet until now. This announcement provides customers an opportunity to run their legacy AIX or IBM i instances in the IBM Cloud gaining the same cost advantages as newer applications.

Let's start with the legacy applications part of this and then we'll move to competitive displacement.

The Problem of Legacy Applications

One of the big problems plaguing the industry is that there are a lot of mission critical applications which were written decades ago and that continue to provide value but not enough value to recreate them. These old applications also tend to be reliable, have a huge number of dependencies on other applications, and the people that understood them are long gone making recreating them or even updating them problematic.

As firms move to either a cloud or a hybrid-cloud models dealing with these applications has been problematic because they run on legacy platforms and were created long before we coined the word “cloud”. Rewriting them has proven very expensive, difficult, and exceedingly risky because the people that created the apps are long gone and a failure, due to the high number of dependencies, could be catastrophic.

But, with this, at least in theory, the legacy applications don't have to be rewritten or replaced, they can be hosted in the IBM Cloud and the IT shop can continue to run these aging applications indefinitely.

Targeted applications would largely be database and financial apps which have massively long lifetimes often exceeding the lives of the firms that created them. While they eventually will need to be updated or replaced this takes a lot of the pressure off for doing it near term and allows the IT shop to prioritize other more critical near-term projects instead.

Competitive Advantage

Power9 has a number of advantages over the X86 platform which is now dominant. But getting people to both buy non-standard hardware and port their applications to it is problematic. With Virtualization you can run x86 instances on a Power9 platform, but the offsetting performance loss likely wouldn't make it worth it. But, for those that need the extra performance (there is a multiplier here I'll get to shortly) and security they now have that option. Now I mentioned a multiplier, Intel has been having serious security problems both in terms of actual potential exploits and in terms of trimly alerts. On this last it has been taking up to 12 months for Intel to notify about a known exposure to their hardware. When they do notify, they issue patches, but these patches tend to disable features and/or reduce performance. Neither Power9 nor AMD has reported the same level of exposure and both platforms have mostly been immune to the latest two groups of exploits.

This is one of the reasons why there are AMD instances popping up in cloud offerings as well. But, with this announcement, with very little risk a company can try out both platforms without incurring the cost of additional hardware and avoid the security and performance exposures plaguing those running on Intel. It strikes me that any cloud provider that was running AMD and IBM Power9 exclusively might have a very strong security advantage in this increasingly unsafe world.

Wrapping Up

IBM's Power9 announcement seemed to initially be about hosting legacy applications and, while important, I don't think it is as powerful as the ability to try out Power9 instances in the cloud and see if the performance is adequate while enjoying the increased security. I think this announcement is a god send not only for those struggling with legacy AIX and IBM i applications.

I wonder how long it will be before someone realizes this same approach could be used for a brand-new architecture, one that hasn't yet been put in the market. I think it is just a matter of time till a brand-new microprocessor architecture comes to market. It's about time we had a little disruption. Until then recognize you have options in the cloud, if legacy apps, performance, and security are important to you this IBM announcement may either be a new option or an indication of even bigger changes to come. 

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