If you go to IBM's website and search on the word heterogeneous, more than 22,000 results come back. That may explain why its new virtualisation tool for managing everything from its mainframe to x86 systems may have appeal with its customers.

IBM and other vendors have long provided tools for managing the diverse mix of hardware and operating systems typically found in corporate data centres. But the company is increasing the level of management control to include virtual systems with a new tool across its hardware platforms: Systems Director VMControl.

The first parts of this new virtualisation management tool will be available for free download on Friday. And an enterprise system that can manage ever larger pools of compute resources is due out sometime in the fourth quarter of the year. VMControl can be used to manage virtual resources on IBM's mainframe System z, its System x86 servers and on Power systems that support AIX, Linux and System i (formerly iSeries and AS/400).

This boost to virtualisation management comes in advance of IBM's release of its Power7 chip in 2010, which will offer up to eight cores and support for up to 1,000 virtual machines - up from support for 254 virtual machines on the Power6 chip.

As the ability to expand the number of virtual machines increases, so does the concern about virtual sprawl, said Scott Handy, vice president of IBM Power Systems. That's one of the reasons users want better management capabilities, he said.

The VMControl system will include management of hypervisors from Microsoft and VMware, along with the virtualisation systems on its Power and mainframe systems. And it will give users a range of abilities to modify, edit, catalog and deploy virtual servers to different physical servers, said Handy.

Users "want a consistent way to manage these virtual environments" along with their physical systems, he said.

IBM will also be trying to make the upgrade path from Power6 to Power7 as simple as possible. The company said those users running Power6-based 570 and 595 servers will be able to swap in the new chip without downtime by using PowerVM Live Partition Mobility or its AIX Live Application Mobility.

The overall improvements in virtualisation may come at a price for vendors, who have been hit across the board by falling hardware sales. IBM is no exception. In its most recent quarter ending June 30, the company said System z revenue was down 39 percent and System x server revenue was off 22 percent year to year.

The economy is the main reason for the decline in hardware sales, but the push toward virtualisation may be playing a role as well, said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT in Hayward, Calif. "We are 12 to 24 months into an energetic push by systems vendors to consolidate into fewer and fewer machines," he said.