In AIX 5L, blue suit meets tie-dye

Anyone who still doubts that Linux has a future in the enterprise should consider IBM Corp.'s attitude toward the upstart OS. If Big Blue weren't convinced of Linux's viability, would it have modified its AIX Unix platform to incorporate support for Linux applications?

Probably not. But that's exactly what IBM has done, along with tweaking the AIX product name to incorporate Linux. The first general-availability OS in this generation of AIX is officially tagged AIX 5L Release 5.1 (L for Linux).

It used to be that the only game in town for serious computing below the mainframe level involved one variety of Unix or another. Various factors entered into companies' decisions as to which Unix to use. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. both have die-hard followers, but IBM's advantage has always been its large installed base of mainframe customers, for whom Unix boxes are strictly midrange systems.

Frankly, all flavors of Unix are about the same when it comes to management tools. It hardly matters whether the user interface is presented as a command line, a set of character-based menus, or even a point-and-click X Window application -- the end result is something less than intuitive.

Unix vendors had better wake up fast because an 800-pound gorilla is breathing down their necks, and he's wearing a Microsoft Corp. giveaway shirt. With the advent of Windows Datacenter Server and Intel's long-awaited Itanium processors, Microsoft is finally ready to enter the big-stakes world of 64-bit computing, and it's bringing a lot of momentum to the table.

Perhaps Microsoft's biggest advantage is the large and steadily increasing number of people with hands-on experience managing Windows NT and Windows 2000 servers. The number of Unix gurus is growing glacially by comparison, and they're divided into four major factions -- AIX, HP-UX, Linux, and Solaris -- which are more divided than united by their common heritage.

Incorporating Linux support into AIX does little to improve the state of Unix management malaise; it will take more than a "Linux affinity" to do that. Still, AIX 5L promises enhancements in the areas of development and customer satisfaction that may give IBM the advantage over its three major Unix competitors.

By allowing companies to consider developers with strong Linux backgrounds, IBM makes it easier for customers to find developers and opens doors to a large crop of talented programmers who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to work on AIX.

AIX 5L will make these developers' lives easier by incorporating Linux-compatible APIs and header files, thus allowing a degree of source compatibility. But because programmers will still have to recompile Linux applications before they'll run on AIX boxes, AIX 5L does not offer what we think of as true binary compatibility.

Fortunately, the separately sold AIX Toolbox for Linux Applications makes the job of porting and enhancing a little less painful, but bundling the toolbox with the OS would have made the whole package more attractive to customers.

AIX 5L is poised to catch the next wave of server technology. Although today AIX is closely identified with Power3, IBM's current RISC-based CPU family, AIX 5L will support Intel's 64-bit Itanium processors and the Power4 when those systems become available later this year or in early 2002.

Some of the scalability improvements of AIX 5L Release 5.1, such as support for 32-way vs. 24-way processor configurations or the capability of addressing 256GB (formerly 96GB) of memory, weren't available in the early-adopter version (Release 5.0), which we evaluated. Still, it's clear that AIX 5L offers a lot of growing room for even the largest customers.

One only need look at Big Blue's plans for AIX's JFS2 journaling file system to peg the OS as properly poised for the future. The file system today supports file sizes as large as a terabyte and is planned to scale to the petabyte range perhaps as early as the next release. Yes, Microsoft might be thumping its mighty chest, but IBM is holding and looking to expand its long-held territory.

P.J. Connolly covers operating systems, networking, security, and server technologies for the Test Center. E-mail him at

It's a big machine

Big companies still demand big computers, and IBM is still synonymous with big computers. Only when speaking of IBM's Unix servers could you possibly describe IBM's new p680 server as "middle of the line." But that's exactly what we're dealing with here.

The p680, with its p640 and p660 siblings, sits just below IBM's zSeries and xSeries at the top of IBM's enterprise server list but above the iSeries, which itself blurs the distinction between the roles of departmental and enterprise servers.

The p680 is the biggest machine we've ever crammed into the InfoWorld Test Center, in terms of physical size and capacity. With room for 24 600MHz RS64 IV CPUs and 96GB of system RAM, the p680 is no frail flower; it provides a highly scalable computing environment any business serving online customers or partners would envy.

The p680's price is also intimidating: Four-way configurations start at US$280,000. Although it's easy to come up with a million-dollar configuration by adding processors and RAM, many companies prefer to plug the cash drain by leasing from IBM rather than buying.

The p680's scaling isn't limited to core components such as memory and processors. With expansion units, the p680 offers as many as 56 PCI slots for what might as well be the last word in networkability.

It's engineered for reliability, too. Features such as IBM's "Chipkill" memory and dynamic processor deallocation make it possible for the computer to absorb component failures without a hiccup. Overall, it looks to us like you still can't get fired for buying (or leasing) from IBM.


IBM AIX 5L Release 5.1.

Executive Summary: If you're reading this, you're probably an IBM customer, wondering, perhaps, if you should remain one. You should: The enhancements to AIX 5L will improve the OS's scalability to increasingly larger systems, and AIX 5L's "Linux affinity" will reduce development costs by letting you take advantage of open-source efforts.

Test Center Perspective: As does every Unix derivative, AIX 5L faces a challenge from Microsoft Windows Datacenter Server and its perceived ease of management. Although IBM simplifies developers' lives by improving AIX's compatibility with Linux and by supplying new enhancement and porting tools, Big Blue still struggles to compete with HP's and Sun's Unix efforts.

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