Messing with IBM xSeries 336 1U and IBM in general, my experiences so far…

IBM xSeries 336
Pictures @ eWeek

So in my current job I get to play with some cool toys, like the IBM xSeries 336 model 8837, and the EXP 400 Disk cabinet. I must say its the first time I have had some real hands-on experience with server hardware, and then to get to work with stuff thats pretty new is quite cool.

Add to that, the fact that its my job to get to know this stuff very well, something I am not accustomed to, is very cool. My past jobs where all pretty pretty boring compared to this, so very rarely was I able to play with rack-mounted servers, let alone new ones.

The company I am with is stardardising on IBM, and these servers represent the first IBM’s this department has laid their hands on.  The first 336 will be used as a WSUS server, which I have written de deployment plan for aswell. The two others we unpacked today, will be used in a cluster solution together with EXP 400 cabinet running a few different RAID configurations. These systems will be running a large logistics application that we dont know that much about yet, even though we, or rather, my female collegue, will be installing and setting up.

I am quite impressed with the hardware so far, but finding my way though the forrest of IBM’s BIOS, driver, and firmware updates, has been quite a hassle. To be blunt, IBM’s support site is a complete mess, with different versions of software included in different downloads, all currencurrently called the latest versions, while seperate downloads are almost impossible to find. Add to that a confusing naming convention, a very amateuristic download system, the most stupid website search function ever, confusing and contradictory documentation; its just been very tiring finding all the proper bits together to get these systems up to date once they are out of the box.

Here is a typical example

IBM offers a downloadable ISO on the IBM site that is suppose to autodetect and update ALL of your systems Firmware and Bios in a single CD-Boot cycle. Its called update express. But even in the newest version, it in fact contains firmware and bios versions that are outdated by single releases featured elsewhere on their support pages.

Oke, no biggy, we can always collect each update individually. Or can you? Most updates come as either a Zipped floppy drive image (the x336 doesnt have a floppy drive), or, thank god, an ISO. So getting our new X336’s up to spec, out of the box, requires at least 6 reboot cycles using 6 different bootable D-roms (!). Even installing IBM director was NO help.. nothing included at all that even hinted at any kind of automatic update system built in, let alone any system that could update firmware live, or, god forbid, remotely!

The only ray of light seems to be IBM directors built in software-distribution system, very very basic, but supporting a standard that IBM has to distribute driver updates (at least!), using a special package format. Pitty though that so far, only 2 of the 12 or so driver downloads for the 336 have this package format included in any way at all.

However, included on the UpdateXpress CD, is a little app called UpdateExpress Live.  This will, get this, automaticly download the updates you need for you. Does it scan your system first to determine what you need? No. Does it integrate with IBM director in any way? No. Does it even install anything? No. It just downloads them for you.
Not that it works mind you. The application contains a single hard-coded web-service URL that its looking for at the IBM site. And guess what.. its giving a timeout.. as in.. there is nothing awnsering on the IBM side.

So, just out of curiosity, I called the IBM support desk, got patched thought to Dubai or somewhere, and I actually ending up guiding the support guy though the steps of running the UpdateExpress Live app, just so he finnally understood what I was talking about! He obviously had no idea about how this was suppose to function. Then he proclaimed that they didnt support the UpdateExpress software, and proceded to guide me to … get this, the website feedback form! Its been a week and I have not recieved any kind of reply so far. I am hessitant to call again.

Here is another, really stupid example.

Try looking for the EXP-400 disk cabinet on the IBM site, then try google. Here’s another. IBM’s web-team have no clue.

Neither am I, initially at least, that impressed with IBM’s main system management software, the IBM Director itself. Sure it can read a lot of data sources and supports a lot of hardware alerting standards, but its interface is one of those examples of really really slow java programming. Its so slow to use the console, even on the server itself. But its web-interface is worse!  Clunky, slow, very limited, totally un-intuitive to use, and ugly.. its just not something I am very happy using.  All in all, it is powerfull though, and perhaps in time, as I learn to use more of its feature set, such as theRemote Deployment Manager, which may solve some of my above problems, providing we dont have to pay more.

So my experiences with IBM so far have been bumpy. Things will undoubtably get easier as I get to learn more how their miriad software and management systems work, and how to navigate their confusing web-presence.

Oh by the way, did I mention that lights-off, out-of-band management with IPMI is cool? Ever hearf of SAC?


One Comments “Messing with IBM xSeries 336 1U and IBM in general, my experiences so far…

  1. Hello,

    I don’t feel so stupid when I see someone like you suffering from the problems I’m trying to figure out.

    Now the question…I too have 3 x336’s that I want to install Zentyal Ubuntu OS based.

    The x336 will not ‘support’ or in any way load Zentyal. Have you tried flashing in a completely new Linux BIOS and to delete IBMs BMC in order to make a clean install of Ubuntu or other Linux OS??

    Hope to hear from you soon 🙂
    ChuckInAtl

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