Under most circumstances, the major public cloud builders would like to use their own iron in their datacenters. But sometimes that is not possible without a lot of dedicated engineering work and the easiest thing is to bring in OEM equipment and expose it through the same cloudy interfaces they use to peddle virtual wares. This is the case with Microsoft and the Power9 systems it will soon be making available on the Azure public cloud.
This tactic stands in stark contrast with Google, Microsoft’s hyperscale and public cloud rival.
Six years ago, Google wanted an alternative to robust Xeon processors from Intel, mostly for search engine and database workloads that require hefty compute and sometimes fat memory, and it wanted it badly enough to form the OpenPower Foundation with IBM, Mellanox Technologies, Nvidia, and Tyan to help get the ball rolling. By early 2015, Google was showing off its own homegrown two-socket motherboard based on the Power8 processor, and a year later it teamed up with Rackspace Hosting to forge the “Zaius” system based on the Power9 processor. In the spring of 2018, as IBM was rolling out its production Power Systems using Power9 chips, Google published benchmarks of its search engine running on Power8 iron and said that it had added the Zaius systems to its server fleet – without being specific about what workloads were running but making it clear that they were more than just a science project. Google also said that it had tested the Power9 iron as a host for its TensorFlow Processing Unit (TPU) compute engines for machine learning workloads. Google has not added Power9 instances to its Cloud Platform public cloud.
Microsoft, Google’s hyperscale and public cloud rival, wants to broaden the applicability of its Azure cloud for all kinds of workloads, not just those that are born in the cloud and expect an X86 instruction set, and therefore it is going to be launching Power9 instances on its cloud. We have no idea what Microsoft’s intentions are for using Power9 processors internally, but just as it has ported Windows Server to Arm server chips for internal use, it can do a re-port and bring Windows Server back to the Power architecture any time it wants to. For all we know, Microsoft has already done this, making Power9 trays for its “Project Olympus” server designs.
As far as we know, this is not the case, and instead Microsoft will be tapping niche cloud provider Skytap to run Power-based systems inside of the Azure cloud, which will be sliced and diced into Azure VMs that can be sold by Microsoft alongside of the Xeon and Epyc server instances that it already sells.
This is a funny development in one way. Retailing giant Amazon started working on what would become Amazon Web Services back in the summer of 2002, and launched the cloud service with the core EC2 compute service back in March 2006. Around that same time, a company then called Illumita was founded by three computer science professors at the University of Washington –Steve Gribble, Hank Levy, and David Richardson – to tackle the issues of developing and testing virtualized applications before they were launched out onto big public cloud infrastructure. The company’s service, called Virtual Lab, gained some traction and eventually raised $109.5 million in five rounds of funding – including none other than Bezos Expositions, the venture investing arm set up by Bezos.
In the past few years, Skytap has pivoted to become a full-fledged cloud in its own right, albeit one focused on providing infrastructure for the kind of traditional, monolithic, database-backed applications that used to rule the datacenter and are still found running on Itanium, Sparc, Power, and other iron – including Intel Xeon processors – in the datacenters of the world. Skytap runs two of its own datacenters, one in its home base of Seattle and a more recent one added in 2016 in Toronto, and it also has a partnership deal with IBM to co-locate its cloudy infrastructure in ten of the datacenters used by the IBM Cloud.
Dan Jones, vice president of products at Skytap, tells The Next Platform that Skytap sells server instances based on Windows Server, Linux, and Solaris on X86 iron. Support for AIX running on Power machinery was added in the fall of 2017, Linux on Power was added in early 2018 and followed a few months later by support for IBM’s proprietary IBM i (formerly OS/400) operating system. Skytap’s own US West (Seattle) datacenter has Power machinery made by IBM in it supporting VMs (using Big Blue’s PowerVM hypervisor) and the IBM datacenters in Dallas, Texas, and London, England also have Power iron in them serving up Skytap slices. These are based on various Power8 machines that IBM designed and manufactured.
In February of this year, you will recall, IBM itself launched virtualized Power iron on its public cloud, based on a mix of Power8 and Power9 machinery, on its own public cloud – ironically years after Skytap did – and is competing against as well as cooperating with Skytap. Just to make things a little more complex, IBM actually has been reselling the Skytap VM services to its own customers, and continues to do so.
It is not clear why Microsoft is not just building its own Power machinery to run in the Azure cloud, but it probably has to do with Microsoft’s desire to bring customers with AIX and IBM i workloads into the Azure fold and then wrap Azure services all around them. In on-premises settings today, AIX and IBM i are predominantly database platforms driving transaction processing systems, and they are, as Jones says, “pretty sticky in the datacenter.” Moreover, they are usually wrapped by lots of X86 machinery, which runs application code and some infrastructure software such as print, file, and Web serving – usually on Windows Server and sometime on Linux. Microsoft knows this full well: The company used to manage its vast software shrink-wrapping and shipping operations on IBM’s AS/400s, and had a hell of a time getting off the boxes.
Microsoft can expect for companies to leave their databases in premises and move the X86 part of their workloads to Azure. The latencies will be terrible, for one thing. So Microsoft wants to be able to block copy those AIX and IBM i datacenters and move them into Azure and start collecting big bucks for hosting them. Once it has a big enough base of customers, Microsoft may decide to design its own machines and license AIX, IBM i, and now Red Hat Enterprise Linux from Big Blue. But for now, it is much easier and much quicker to partner with Skytap. Once the machinery is in place and the databases and applications are moved, Microsoft can encourage customers to refactor or modernize their infrastructure on native Azure or just leave these customers along and collect the money.
Under the deal that Microsoft and Skytap have struck, Microsoft is buying two-socket Power S922 servers from IBM and dropping them into one of its Azure regions. (We are not certain which one.) Those machines, unlike the Zaius server from Google and Rackspace Hosting, can run the PowerVM hypervisor, which supports the legacy IBM operating systems as well as Linux. The PowerKVM hypervisor that IBM and Google created only supports Linux, although IBM and Microsoft could probably work out a way to get PowerVM on the Zaius machines if this became desirable to create an Olympus server variant based on Power.
The service that Skytap and Microsoft is offering runs in the Azure cloud and has ExpressRoute pipes back into the on-premises datacenters or across Microsoft Azure regions.
This Borg approach of bringing foreign platforms into the Azure datacenters is not new. Cray and Microsoft announced a deal in October 2017 that put Cray XC40 supercomputers on the Azure cloud and put them up for rent. And more recently, Microsoft just inked a deal with a startup called CloudSimple that will allow for customers to run VMware ESXi virtual machines as well as the cut-down version of NSX network virtualization (called NSX-T) and vSAN virtualized storage all on the Azure cloud.
The Power instances on the Azure cloud will be in private preview before the end of this year, and are expected to be in limited availability in January next year. It is not clear when the Power VMs will be available in the Azure Marketplace – which is how something becomes generally available on the Azure cloud – but this will almost certainly happen before 2020 is done.
Once Microsoft has experience with Power iron, it can build its own and possibly deploy Power machinery in much more interesting ways. Or it could even acquire the Skytap team to help better integrate Power iron and other legacy workloads such as Solaris into the Azure cloud. Plenty of the people who founded and who still work at Skytap came from Microsoft, so this would be a natural fit. Best get it done before AWS or Google snaps Skytap up.
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