It’s hard to know what to make of the IBM BladeCenter Extension (zBX), announced in July 2010 when IBM unveiled its zEnterprise hybrid server. The zBX hardware didn’t begin shipping right away, but has now been on the market for a year with little industry attention.
One reason for the early lack of noise is the dearth of blades to populate the zBX. The only blades generally available have been the Smart Analytics Optimizer blade, an accelerator for business intelligence, and the DataPower blade, an accelerator for data warehousing. More Power and x86 blades are now available, including the x86 blade for Windows announced in October 2011, but the Smart Analytics Optimizer has been replaced with the IBM DB2 Analytics Accelerator, which isn’t a zBX blade at all but a version of the Netezza appliance.
Recently, IBM reported that more than 100 zBX units shipped with more than 400 blades sold to more than 100 clients. Especially with the Windows blade, you would expect more industry fanfare. In a full zEnterprise configuration, the zBX connects to the z196 or z114 over a private 10Gb link and is managed through a single console, the Unified Resource Manager (zManager), which handles the System z, zBX, and any blades, including Windows x86 blades (IBM eX5 blades), as a single virtual system.
Initially, mainframe data center managers resisted the zBX idea because they already had Power or x86 servers throughout their IT infrastructure. They would have to build a business case for replacing what they had with the zBX and fight a political battle against distributed systems zealots. They also were discouraged by what they expected would be obscenely high costs for the zBX. Actually, these concerns may yet prove unfounded. Still, IBM experts privately say you need at least four and ideally eight to 12 blades to justify the zBX cost, so it isn’t cheap.
The zBX early adopters are the usual suspects: leading mainframe shops such as Citi and some multi-platform IT service providers. For example, BG-Phoenics GmbH, an IT service provider in Germany, consolidated a bunch of standalone Power servers to zBX.
The Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) began moving from a strategy of mainframe serving to a strategy of hybrid enterprise hosting. It’s deploying multiple z196 machines and has started to add multiple zBX boxes. The plan was to deploy AIX blades initially but the agency hopes to add the x86 blade to “let the test and development folks kick the tires” according to the DND manager of enterprise hosting. The blades running Power will take on workloads currently handled by Power servers.
The zBX at DND is expected to streamline and simplify the overall IT infrastructure and facilitate business recovery. A design that facilitates application redundancy and failover may be a zBX strength. With the z196-zBX combination, “we get business recovery in a box,” notes the DND manager.
A little more than 100 organizations are using the zBX; most shops remain on the sidelines, at least for now.
A high-level IT manager at a large insurance company said in a memo to top management that zBX represents a major IBM technological accomplishment whose importance will become more apparent over the next decade, but it isn’t clear yet whether it currently represents a sufficient financial breakthrough to justify the cost.
The IT manager adds that certain functions and capabilities the company normally seeks in its servers and applications seem to be available from IBM only in a rack-mount server environment and not in blade servers. “Either the IBM blade server environment isn’t as scalable, flexible, and reconfigurable as its corresponding rack server environment or else it is and our staff hasn’t been made aware of that,” the manager said.