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7/22/2010
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IBM Unveils Next-Generation Mainframe

Big Blue calls new zEnterprise server a "data center in a box" that will appeal as much to CFOs as CIOs.

Looking to prove that its big iron roots are more relevant than ever at a time when corporate IT departments need to do more with less, IBM on Thursday rolled out a new mainframe designed to dramatically cut data center costs and complexity.

The zEnterprise server, which supercedes the z10 in IBM's heavy metal lineup, can absorb a broad range of tasks and platforms that are generally strewn across data center floors in the name of distributed computing. "There's a dramatic difference between a highly distributed footprint and a highly consolidated footprint," said Steve Mills, IBM's senior VP for Software and Systems, at a launch event in New York City.

The latter, Mills said, offers big savings on a number of fronts—including labor, parts, cabling, power, storage, and real estate. "This is the most powerful announcement we've ever made in the history of the IBM company in terms of customer economics," said Mills, who earlier this week added hardware to his existing software responsibilities as IBM aims to deliver a more tightly integrated product line.

zEnterprise 196, the first in the new line, ships later in the current quarter with prices starting at $1 million. The specs would appear to justify IBM's description of the system as a "data center in a box" or a "cloud in a box." With 96 industry-fastest 5.2 GHz processors on board, the raw speed is there for real-time and in-line transaction processing, and the system can support up to 100,000 virtual images.

"Nobody this decade" will offer that level of virtualization, said Mills, in a swipe at rivals Oracle and HP.

Scalability shouldn't be an issue either, as zEnterprise offers a BladeCenter Extension module that lets users add the mainframe's heft to their existing Power7 and System x BladeCenter servers for specific tasks like analytics and Web infrastructure management. The extension also means the zEnterprise can provide back-end support for any application written for Power7 and x86 environments—a setup that opens the mainframe to a whole new class of developers.

While pitching the zEnterprise as an alternative to complex, distributed environments, the system also compares favorably to the z10. It's got 60% more capacity than its predecessor, offers a 60% performance improvement on data intensive and Java workloads, and it can run a single, virtualized Linux server for less than a dollar a day, according to IBM.

Some customers, particularly in the data hungry financial services arena, are already convinced. Citi, Swiss Re, FIS, and First National Bank of Namibia are among the companies that will use zEnterprise. "Cost, cost, and cost," are the reasons why Swiss Re is moving to the system, according to Information Technology VP Markus Schmid. And as proof of the system's flexibility, FNB chief information officer Stephen van Rhyn plans to use it as a hub for the bank's plan to extend services to bush men in the Kalahari.

But while zEnterprise's specs are impressive, it won't add much to IBM's coffers unless the company can convince more large customers to make seven-figure investments in big iron at a time when capex budgets remain tight. IBM's mainframe revenues have declined in seven of the past eight quarters, and zEnterprise won't change that unless Big Blue delivers fast ROI to CIOs that take the plunge. "No product is as subject to as much debate than the mainframe, in terms of cost" Mills conceded.

But IBM is confident that zEnterprise is a system that even frugal CFOs will sign off on. "Today, every customer, independent of size or industry, wants lower costs of IT operations in the way those operations are deployed, installed, and managed," said Systems & Technology senior VP Rod Adkins, in an interview with InformationWeek Global CIO.

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