IBM is promising a single tool for customers to manage all of their physical and virtual servers, including mainframes, Unix boxes and x86 machines.

It's a lofty goal -- and it's not clear when IBM will be able to deliver on it. Big Blue on Tuesday issued a press release about its new VMControl product line, claiming that this software "gives businesses for the first time a single point of control across multiple types of IT systems and virtualisation technologies [including] UNIX/Linux, mainframe, x86 and storage systems and networks."

But a close reading reveals that the enterprise edition of VMControl will initially work only with a limited set of proprietary IBM technology -- namely IBM's Power Systems servers running AIX operating systems.

The VMControl enterprise edition for Power servers won't be available until December, so it's likely that IBM will not deliver a truly heterogeneous management tool until 2010.

But the announcement can still be seen as a preview a technology that solves an important problem, says IT analyst Joe Clabby of Clabby Analytics. As businesses embrace virtualisation, they are likely to use multiple hypervisors and on different types of platforms, from x86 to the mainframe, he says. This will cause enterprises to create separate infrastructures that don't communicate well with each other, and require different skills to manage, he says.

Businesses need a "manager" for their multiple hypervisors, Clabby says.

"If you kept installing all of these different hypervisor products on your x86 and then a different management scheme on your Power systems and a different one on your mainframe and a different one on your Itanium systems ... you're going to end up with a whole bunch of different stacks," Clabby says.

IBM first unveiled VMControl in July, making the "express" and "standard" versions of the software available for download.

The express edition announced in July does work with a wide range of systems, including IBM mainframes and Power servers as well as x86 servers regardless of vendor. The express version lets customers create, delete, edit and relocate virtual machines, but lacks more advanced functionality found in the higher-end versions of VMControl.

The standard edition adds the ability to manage virtual appliances, or specific workloads that are encapsulated within a virtual machine and include the operating system, applications, patching and configuration. VMControl makes this capability available for mainframe and Power servers only. To gain this feature for IBM's x86 servers, customers can buy Tivoli Provisioning Manager.

The enterprise edition of VMControl, the only new version announced this week, adds "system pool management," which IBM says is important in building private clouds. VMControl Enterprise Edition pricing will start at $2,500.

"VMControl allows combinations of physical and virtual IBM servers to be managed as a single entity," according to IBM's announcement. "This approach -- known as system pooling -- expands the benefits of virtualisation by helping corporate data centres simplify complex management functions and better share and prioritise use of critical resources such as processing power, memory and storage."

Eventually, IBM's pooling system will let customers combine all their servers and treat them as a single resource pool, and dynamically send workloads to the processors best able to handle them, Clabby says. But since the Enterprise edition is only available on Power systems initially, this capability will be limited until IBM expands it to other platforms.

With this week's announcement, "they're sort of teaching the market what's coming," Clabby says of IBM.

IBM distinguished engineer Jim Porell said it's not yet clear when the standard and enterprise editions of VMControl will work with non-IBM servers. But he said IBM is committed to reducing the number of management tools customers need to handle their virtual resources.

"We look at the whole environment becoming hybrid," he says. "The whole point is to reduce the number of control points in a business, to work effectively across a variety of hypervisor managers and break down the barriers."