IBM Mainframes Nipped, Tucked For Cloud Age

IBM revived the mainframe a decade ago by embracing Linux. Now it's promoting big data analytics and OpenStack cloud support on System Z.
Statements about the death of the mainframe have been made for at least a couple of decades. But IBM keeps proving that with new technology and timely facelifts aimed at the latest market demands, mainframes can stay relevant.

The latest wrinkle remover for the System Z mainframe, spotlighted with this week's release of the IBM zEnterprise BC12 (Business Class) entry-level mainframe, is extended support for growing use cases including big data analytics and cloud computing. The BC12 will start shipping in September, about one year after the release of vendor's latest Enterprise Class machine, the zEnterprise EC12.

New capabilities inherited from the EC12 include an IBM DB2 Analytics Accelerator that IBM says provides significantly faster performance for workloads such as Cognos and SPSS analytics. That's compared to BC12's predecessor, the z114, and to alternative platforms, like highly distributed x86 server deployments. The BC12 also attaches to Netezza and newer PureData for Analytics appliances used for high-scale data warehousing.

[ Can the mainframe work with new platforms like Hadoop? Read IBM And Big Data Disruption: Insider's View. ]

On the cloud front, IBM is a contributor to the OpenStack architecture for cloud computing, which was initially developed by RackSpace and NASA. IBM has added z/VM Hypervisor and z/VM Operating System APIs for use with OpenStack. Thus, public cloud service providers (including IBM's own SmartCloud) and companies building out private cloud capacity can take advantage of mainframe uptime, security and cost advantages.

Many people might not think "cost advantages" and "mainframe" go together, but server consolidation for Linux workloads, a capability introduced in a 1999 facelift, is now driving the lion's share of mainframe growth. Linux now accounts for more than 25% of all System Z workloads, according to IBM, and it's not for decades-old banking and insurance applications originally developed for mainframes. It's about Web serving, packaged enterprise apps such as ERP and CRM systems, and other workloads.

"A lot of companies have racks upon racks upon racks of x86-class servers running Linux applications, and it may be more economical and practical to run on System Z rather than rack-mounted servers, which can be an operational nightmare at high scale," says analyst Mike Kahn of The Clipper Group.

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The BC12, for example, can consolidate up to 40 virtual servers per core, and it has 13 cores, so it can run up to 520 virtual server instances on a single machine. Though consolidation, customers can save as much as 55% over distributed x86 deployments, according to IBM.

"The components of the savings include the hardware, but the bigger chunk is on software, because you're consolidating onto many fewer cores," says Kelly Ryan, director of System Z products. "There are also environmental savings both in terms of the data center footprint and electricity used when you're consolidating, say, 24 servers down into one box."

IBM's business class mainframes have been popular in China and other developing markets, where banks and government agencies have large and growing workloads. The smaller machine is also a popular choice when countries have in-country data-privacy rules. The larger EC12 supports up to 101 user-accessible cores, and with virtualization it's a veritable server farm in a single box.

The mainframe is right when customers have diverse (typically multi-tier) workloads and demand for large virtual servers. IBM Power server line, the other major component of IBM's $17.6 billion Systems and Technology hardware business (which accounts for about 17% of IBM's total revenue) is typically used for specific applications, rather than broad-ranging workloads.

IBM made a big point of announcing "starting at" pricing of $75,000 for the BC12, but that's for a single-core configuration within a box designed to hold up to 13 cores. Few customers would likely buy such an underpowered BC12, unless it's for first-timer sandbox experiments. IBM doesn't publish its pricing, but make no mistake: mainframes are still expensive relative to x86 servers, and count on ongoing maintenance and management outlays that run up to 30% of initial deployment cost.

System Z is a big reason why IBM was number one in server revenue in 2012, at $15.5 billion according to Gartner figures, yet it was number three in units shipped, at about 1.0 million servers (compared to 2.6 million for unit leader HP and 2.1 million units for Dell). IBM's Power line is also included in these high-end server numbers, but Power line revenue was off 8.5% last year whereas mainframe revenues increased 5.4%.

With IBM missing revenue targets in Q1 and top-line growth being a problem in recent quarters, the quest is on for new sources of revenue.

"Mainframe" and "new" don't seem like words that belong together, but IBM is coming up with new ways to bolster System Z for big data analytics and cloud. And that could give this graying-around-the-temples platform another decade of relevance.

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