Why did SI choose mainframes as a central architecture in its information systems environment? One factor is resource consolidation. Mainframes pack a lot of computing power into small real estate footprints as opposed to expansive, space-hogging, distributed server farms. By capitalizing on this dense systems packaging, SI has increased its processing capacity while reducing the number of large data centers it needs to run.
Another big driver for mainframe usage is resource virtualization. By condensing many servers into fewer servers, using the mainframe as a consolidation platform, and deploying virtual computing server environments on the mainframe, SI lowered its server count while increasing its server usage rate to the 90 percent-plus range. One of the reasons mainframes perform at such high utilization rates relates directly to the mainframe’s strong support for virtual computing. System z architecture has supported virtual computing for almost 40 years, and features several advanced management capabilities, including Logical Partitions (LPARs), advanced memory management, and the ability to support thousands of virtual machines per system. By contrast, x86-based servers offer comparatively basic support for virtual computing.
Still another driver is mainframe management. Centralized management across consolidated systems was an important focal point in SI’s efforts to control costs. Mainframe architecture has been built around the concept of centralized management and offers the industry’s richest centralized systems management and centralized virtual systems management environments.
A core tenet of SI’s business is reliable delivery of computing capacity. Mainframes still provide the highest Meantime Between Failure (MTBF) in the industry while offering almost limitless expansion capacity. From a system design perspective, System z mainframes are ideal for meeting SI’s reliability requirements and capacity needs. SI’s System z mainframes regularly operate at close to 100 percent capacity while handling huge transaction volumes in a consistent, reliable, and secure manner. Some of SI’s UNIX servers are operating at 85 percent utilization rates while most of SI’s x86-based servers are operating at lower utilization rates.
The combination of all these drivers has had a positive effect on overall computing efficiency, but also has put some stress on data center designs, as denser systems generate more heat that must be dissipated. To deal with heat dissipation, SI has modernized some of the devices in its data centers such as chillers, Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems, and UPSs, but hasn’t yet reached the point where it needs to water cool its data centers. (Note: Water cooling has a 3,000:1 cooling advantage over air and may become a desirable cooling alternative for SI at some future date.)
Simply stated, SI’s business strategy involves providing reliable computing services at a price point that substantially undercuts a retail bank’s internal computing costs as well as computing costs offered by its competitors. To do this, SI uses technologies that let it deliver highly reliable services— specifically, powerful, highly scalable servers with strong Reliability, Availability, and Security (RAS). Further, SI also relies on technologies such as automated management software that help reduce systems, storage, and network management costs.
By consolidating its systems, using virtual computing, and redesigning its data centers, SI has become a leading pioneer in the implementation of the NEDC model. The company’s aggressive adoption of the principles of consolidation and virtual computing, its standardization on SOA infrastructure, and its implementation of efficient data center cooling and energy use have helped improve its competitive position while also enabling its customers in an extremely cost-effective manner. SI’s competitors have been slower to react to these changes in data center design and SI has consistently gained market share.
SI’s use of System z mainframes is seemingly an anomaly, but when comparing System z to other systems architectures, it’s easy to understand why SI has made such a huge commitment to IBM System z architecture. System z represents an ideal design point for SI; they can operate at 100 percent capacity for extended periods with little risk of failure, enabling SI to achieve its main operational reliability and efficiency goals. Further, System z’s small footprint is important because data center real estate space is limited. Finally, System z’s efficient power consumption characteristics make it an even more attractive offering due to rising energy costs.
SI recognized early on the cost and asset utilization advantages it could realize by consolidating its server environments and employing a virtual computing approach with its servers and storage devices. Further, SI also recognized that SOA could simplify the integration of hardware and software assets resulting from its many acquisitions. Additionally, by consolidating and virtualizing its information systems architecture, while also implementing SOA, SI has been able to create distinct competitive advantage over its systems integrator competitors.
SI’s achievements are replicable across data centers of all sizes in multiple industries. The deployment and optimization of dense systems architectures will necessitate some changes in data center design, but SI has proved that running optimized, energy-efficient information systems has a clear, profound, positive impact on competitiveness and profitability.