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IBM zEnterprise mainframe embraces Unix and Linux

Alex Barrett

Come to papa. The new zEnterprise mainframe that IBM unveiled on Thursday has heft and brawn, of course, but also the strength to hold IBM Power systems running Unix and x86 systems running Linux in its considerable arms.

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IBM says the zEnterprise "multi-architecture" strategy represents the ultimate in customer choice and flexibility. Skeptics, meanwhile, would not be faulted for viewing Big Blue's new embrace-and-extend philosophy as a way to keep the mainframe relevant in the face of x86 commoditisation, virtualisation and VMware.

Besides the obligatory processor and power-efficiency enhancements, the new zEnterprise mainframe features the zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension and the IBM zEnterprise Unified Resource Manager firmware. Together, the two enable zEnterprise to house and manage workloads running across System z, and select Power7 and System x systems, from the elusive single pane of glass.

Markus Schmid, CIO at Swiss Re, said the insurance company would deploy zEnterprise as soon as it was available, and will utilise the BladeCenter Extension (ZBX) and Unified Resource Manager capabilities to rearchitect where workloads run within the organisation while maintaining a tightly managed environment.

For instance, trading applications that have traditionally run on Power systems might be brought on to zEnterprise, while mainframe applications written in COBOL, such as financial closing applications, might be ported off to Java environments running on Power or x86.

"It's about bringing in apps, but also about breaking them up," Schmid said during an analyst roudtable at the launch event in New York City.

May the best platform win
This represents an acknowledgement by IBM that some workloads are a better fit for the mainframe than others -- both in terms of price and performance, said Jonathan Eunice, principal IT advisor at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H.

"The problem with the mainframe is that it's not economic for a lot of workloads," Eunice said, specifically anything that requires a lot of computation and floating point calculations. "The mainframe is great with a lot of data, I/O throughput and reliability but doesn't have good price performance when [the workload] is compute intensive."

That argument is less relevant with the new super-powerful zEnterprise, said Ambuj Goyal, IBM general manager of manfacturing and development for the systems and technology group. But nevertheless, IBM long ago gave up trying to strong-arm customers from migrating from one platform to another.

"That was IBM in the early '90s, when the answer to every question was 'the mainframe,'" Goyal said. Before the company decided to aggressively push Unix and Linux in the mid '90s, "we almost lost [our way] because we were more focused on selling what we had than what customers wanted."

Goyal added that while the multi-architecture strategy is starting on zEnterprise, IBM will extend the concept outside of the z platform over time. At the same time, implementing a multi-architecture strategy is easier said than done. For instance, imagine an environment with a Web server running on Power talking to a commerce application running on the mainframe. In a multi-architecture environment, if the commerce application is down, "who calls home? Managing [these details] becomes a huge problem," Goyal said.

Meanwhile, at least one mainframe customer currently on the z10 described himself as "underwhelmed" by the zEnterprise announcement, dubbing the BladeCenter Extension a "caboose."

"I guess I don't understand what the big deal is," said the capacity and performance management specialist at a large midwestern insurance firm. There's nothing currently stopping mainframe shops from porting workloads to and from the mainframe, and past IBM attempts at global workload management -- for example, Enterprise Workload Manager -- "just sort of petered out."

The shop currently runs a variety of traditional mainframe workloads, such as claims processing and membership, on the z10, as well as SAP and other applications on zLinux, but its long-term direction is to slowly outsource mainframe apps to a service provider and run the z10 in to the ground. "We never want to upgrade it again," he said, citing exorbitant third-party software costs rather than IBM hardware pricing. "It's the ISVs -- that's what's taken the mainframe down more than anything."

Mainframe in a VMware world
But despite whatever lip service IBM may play to heterogeneity, there's little doubt that the zEnterprise is focused on existing mainframe customers, rather than trying to convert new shops to its side.

"This is not designed for customers or workloads that have no affinity to the mainframe," Goyal said, where "affinity" can mean Power or x86 workloads that interact with the mainframe, or workloads that are candidates for migration to the mainframe's superior I/O throughput, security and reliability characteristics.

That's a good thing, because the number of net new mainframe shops is small, said Illuminata's Eunice.

"There are two conceptions of the mainframe: shops that say it's the centre of their business and shops that say it's the dinosaur of their business," Eunice said. "Sure, there are new z customers -- sometimes in non-traditional industries -- but if I'm a Windows guy, I'm not going to go look at System z."

While the mainframe is in no danger of going away anytime soon, the uber-trend in enterprise computing today is commodity systems running Windows and Linux on top of VMware virtualisation. And while the zEnterprise ZBX will support x86 blades starting next year, the initial release calls for Linux running on KVM, not Windows or VMware.

"I don't think VMware is a friend here," Eunice said. "This [release is about] the IBM workload regime. VMware threatens the hell out of the systems management companies, as it is taking over huge swaths of other people's systems management business."

IBM's Goyal, however, added that future VMware support is not off the table. "KVM is a first release," and over time the company will deliver "what people are asking for," he said.

Bigger iron
Mainframes handle the world's biggest processing jobs, and the new zEnterprise appears up to the task. The new zEnterprise 196 features 96 cores running at 5.2 GHz for up to 50,000 MIPS, up from a maximum of 64 cores running at 4.4 GHz on the z10. It can be configured to handle up to 80 specialty engines, such as System z Application Assist Processor (zAAP) for Java workloads, the System z Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) and the Integrated Facility for Linux.

At the same time, IBM claims the new system uses about the same amount of electricity for the 60% additional capacity, thanks to 45-nm silicon, more efficient power conversion and distribution, advanced sensors, and cooling control firmware. In addition, a water-cooling option can reduce energy use by an additional 12.9%, the company said.

New software offerings on the zEnterprise 196 include IBM Smart Analytics Optimiser, an accelerator for analytic workloads running on the BladeCenter Extension in conjunction with DB2 10 for z/OS, Cognos Business Intelligence and SPSS Predictive Analytics.

Detailed specifications of the IBM zEnterprise System can be found on the company's website. Initial shipments of zEnterprise will begin in September.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at @aebarrett on twitter.