April 24, 2007 11:09 AM PDT

IBM Unix servers get x86 Linux apps

IBM has released beta software to let applications written for Linux on servers with x86 processors run in Big Blue's System p machines built with its own Power processors.

The software, called System p Application Virtual Environment (AVE) and announced Monday, is based on the QuickTransit software from start-up Transitive, which translates the software instructions for one chip into the language understood by another, storing frequently used instructions to speed execution.

The software gets around what's called a "binary break"--the fact that software binary files created for one type of computer processor don't work on another. Although Linux is widely used on x86 servers--those using chips such as Intel's Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron--it's a relative rarity on IBM's Power chips, in part because of that binary break. IBM has been striving for years to change this and attract more Linux software.

System p machines currently run IBM's version of Unix, named AIX, Linux products from Red Hat and Novell, and IBM's i5/OS--indeed, they can run all those operating systems at the same time in separate partitions using technology called virtualization. The company hopes the AVE software will mean its massive System p machines will be better able to replace scads of inefficiently used x86 servers.

AVE is in beta testing now, but IBM plans to release a final, free version in the second half of 2007, the company said. It works on servers with Power5 and Power5+ processors, or on JS20 or JS21 blade servers using PowerPC 970 processors. At this stage, it runs 32-bit Linux software only.

The company wouldn't discuss software performance comparing AVE to servers with modern x86 processors, but said the focus of development now is shifting from fleshing out features to improving performance. For computing-intensive tasks, IBM recommends using software written natively for the processor it's running on.

IBM offers free support for a year to software companies that plan to use AVE to bring their Linux software to IBM Power servers, the company said. Customers, too, get a free year of support. And while certifications for x86 don't carry over, the bottom line is that "the x86 applications run on System p without modification," spokesman John Buscemi said.

Transitive customers also include Apple, which uses it in its Rosetta software to ease customers' transition from PowerPC chips to Intel chips; SGI, which offers the software to customers moving from older machines with MIPS processors to newer Itanium-based models; and Intel, which uses it to attract customers with software for Sun Microsystems' Sparc chips to its Itanium-based models.

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Why not the reverse?
It would be much more useful if IBM would offer the version of Transitive software which allows POWER applications to run on x86 systems, rather than the reverse.

Why emulate the most mass-produced CPU instruction set ever, given the ISA is still in mass production?

I fail to understand what value running x86 Linux apps on POWER provides. Intel Woodcrest and AMD Opteron provide great 64-bit performance, the AMD/Intel competition keeps prices dirt cheap and innovation moving at light-speed, and VMware provides fine-grained virtualization. And just like the AMD/Intel war keeps processor prices low, the coming Xen/VMware war is going to cut the cost of virtualization.

Emulators are needed to support customers on processor architectures which are dead-end. That is Alpha and PA-RISC. Next would be current platforms which customers want to move off of. That would be the Mainframe first, then Itanium, and after that perhaps POWER and SPARC.

There are clearly some weird politics going on at Transitive.

HP's partnership with Transitive is not focused on HP's own Alpha and PA-RISC customers, but instead on offering a SPARC on Itanium emulator.

IBM's partnership with Transitive is not focused on POWER or mainframe customers, but instead on offering an x86 on POWER emulator.

I can never envision the business case for emulating the industry-standard x86 architecture on a proprietary RISC platform like IBM's POWER.

I would love to see VMware buy Transitive and offer the ability to create Alpha, PA-RISC, Mainframe, Itanium, POWER, and SPARC VMs on ESX server. Of course if they did that, it would be EMC declaring war on the rest of the IT industry, but it would be a really cool product.
Posted by meh130 (145 comments )
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Nothing new here
This is the same technology that came with Windows NT 3.1 back in the early 90s when MS targeted the OS to the Intel, Mips, Power PC and Alpha chips. It wasn't a success back then, I wonder if IBM can pull it off today.
Posted by extinctone (214 comments )
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