New IBM mainframe won't end battle for big iron's soul

IBM is expected later this month to announce its next-generation System z mainframe, its first update since the release of the z9 three years ago.


IBM is expected later this month to announce its next-generation System z mainframe, its first update since the release of the z9 three years ago. It is promising improved energy efficiency, security and "50% more capacity" in its new hardware.

But what this new mainframe won't change is the ongoing battle for IBM mainframe customers, who can easily spend millions of dollars on a new system and are continually wooed by alternative and much less costly platforms.

The venerable mainframe has a vital role in many large companies, and that's not going to change anytime soon. The mainframe "is the king of the house, it's where the crown jewels are stored," said Mike Walter, a Z/VM systems manager at Hewitt Associates, a human resource services company in Lincolnshire, Illinois

Mainframes earn their keep in many ways, but the one characteristic that's often at the top of any list is their reliability. Walter can only recall one mainframe crash in 10 years. "How many distributed servers can say that?" he said.

A big advantage for distributed servers, on the other hand, is cost. Palm Beach Community College just auctioned off its zSeries 890 on eBay for $40,000, after paying $500,000 for the system three years ago.

Tony Parziale, the CIO of the 46,000-student college in Lake Worth, Fla., said the four-socket Intel system that is replacing the z890 will cost about $30,000. While his IT staff will miss some of the mainframe's tools, the new system "runs faster than the mainframe, and the software cost less," he said.

Decisions, decisions

This conflict between distributed systems and mainframes is evident in a recent survey by the IBM user group Share. More than 430 of its members, with job titles ranging from systems administrator to CIO, responded to the survey. In it, 23% said they were planning to increase usage of their mainframes, compared to 19% that will reduce their use or move off of the systems completely. Of the remainder, 14% said no major changes or migrations were planned; 23% weren't running a mainframe, 18% were unsure, and the balance was in the category of "other."

Since the release of the z9 in 2005, IBM has made a series of announcements concerning projects directed at improving the platform's administration. These include a $100m investment by IBM to simplify the mainframe environment and encourage use of the systems in service-oriented architectures (SOA). The company is also funding training programs at universities worldwide to ensure that there is enough mainframe-trained talent available.

The upcoming System z announcement will also emphasise "unprecedented levels of workload consolidation," said IBM CFO Mark Loughridge, who previewed the upcoming system during a conference call on the company's latest financial results last month.

Energy savings is a big reason for workload consolidation these days, and it is why IBM will likely give a lot of attention to the ability of its mainframes to host thousands of virtual servers in limited data centre space.

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