IT Management

Sep 14 ’12

Despite competitors’ claims that IBM System z mainframes are dinosaurs and advice from research firms telling mainframe customers to abandon their systems because of a perceived shortage of technical manager due to the “gray-hairs” retiring, IBM System z capacity continues to grow steadily. Today’s installed base of financial institutions, retailers, and governments continue to add scale and grow capacity to serve demands for large-scale transaction processing and for processing large databases. New Java-based Linux applications and business analytics applications are being sold into new geographies, paving the way for future new System z workload growth.

As of first quarter 2012, IBM reports:

  • Steady capacity increases every year since year-end 2003
  • Six straight quarters of positive compound growth
  • More than 120 new mainframe accounts since third quarter 2010 when the zEnterprise was launched.

IBM also reports that 36 percent of its base has installed Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) processors, System z chips with modified microcode that enable thousands of Linux instances to be launched and managed within a System z environment. IFL growth is important to the mainframe’s future because it enables today’s modern, Java-based applications to run on the mainframe. This lets the mainframe be positioned as a large, efficient Linux consolidation server. Both Linux and z/OS applications are still making their way to the System z—with more than 100 new Independent Software Vendor (ISV) partners added to the System z portfolio of more than 3,000 applications in 2011. 

As for geographical growth, IBM reports that 35 percent is coming from “growth markets” that include Eastern Europe, China, Brazil, Russia, and dozens of other countries. In addition, 49 percent of this growth comes from the general business marketplace, which includes automotive, chemicals, healthcare, telecommunications, and more. IBM is seeing particularly strong growth in the public sector with 19 percent of its new buyers hailing from the public sector. Several of these new wins involved IBM Smarter Cities solutions—solutions that help cities run operations from traffic management to emergency services and other citizen services.

Shifting the Discussion to Workloads

One big change in IBM messaging this year is the company’s shift to discussing application workload characteristics instead of the virtues of its mainframe hardware technologies. IBM mainframe sales and marketing organizations are now talking “solutions” and “workloads” as opposed to speeds-and-feeds and Reliability, Availability, and Scalability (RAS).

In an April 2012 research analyst briefing, IBM focused its attention on four specific workloads that will serve to grow its mainframe business in the future:

  • Cloud computing where the mainframe is positioned as a centralized cloud management architecture
  • Consolidation where huge savings can be achieved by using mainframe scale-up hardware and by reducing the number of software licenses that need to be purchased
  • SAP or industry business applications where scaling and security are key Quality of Service (QoS) requirements—and where there’s a need to support more than 1,000 users or thousands of high-intensity batch processing jobs
  • Business analytics where the System z is positioned as a large business analytics/data processing server.

As IBM pursues cloud business, it has positioned its System z as a turnkey, private cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) architecture that can deliver shared services in a highly available, secure manner to various user groups. IaaS cloud servers offer integrated infrastructure and hardware, making it easy for IT managers, administrators, and users to launch applications on said infrastructure. To simplify the ordering of this cloud environment, IBM recently announced its zEnterprise Starter Edition, which uses its Enterprise Linux Server or Solution Edition for Enterprise Linux packaged environments to help governments build self-service cloud environments. This environment can be managed by IBM’s OMEGAMON EX for z/VM and Linux—and IBM’s Systems and Technology Group (STG) Lab Services can even provide scripts and code that make it possible to rapidly provision new workloads.

From a consolidation perspective, IBM has long recognized that its mainframe servers have technology advantages over commodity servers when it comes to scaling and virtualization, and accordingly has built turnkey Linux environments that can be deployed on its z/VM operating system. IT buyers who run large x86-based Linux server farms have been flocking to IBM’s Linux over z/VM implementations because they can launch and manage thousands of Linux virtual servers within a mainframe environment—and greatly reduce the number of software licenses they need to purchase. A report titled “The Mainframe Virtualization Advantage: How to Save Over a Million Dollars Using an IBM System z as a Linux Cloud Server” describes how mainframe virtualization efficiency can result in huge savings for enterprises looking to consolidate Linux on a large scale-up server. You can access this report at

IBM has observed explosive growth in the number of SAP business application workloads making their way to mainframe servers recently and is working to build a service automation cloud for SAP applications on zEnterprise. IBM claims that SAP administrators who manage SAP across distributed server environments are finding management of those environments labor-intensive—and accordingly, SAP operational budgets are being drained by labor costs. Placing SAP applications within a large, scale-up environment, and combining mainframe technology and services to automate, standardize, and speed-up day-to-day operations, means System z deployments are leading to faster time-to-value and lower management costs.

A recent report titled “Choosing IBM zEnterprise for Next Gen Business Analytics Applications” from Enterprise Computing Advisors and Clabby Analytics describes the mainframe foray into the business analytics market. This report identifies two major reasons why IT buyers are deploying new analytics workloads on IBM’s System z. The first reason is “superior economics”; this means System z costs less to operate—and can cost less to acquire—than a cacophony of underutilized UNIX- and x86-based servers. The second reason is “system design strengths” that manifest themselves in high QoS levels and lower risk.

Many of the opportunities for business analytics revenue growth can be found in the areas of call center efficiency, predictive cross-sell and up-sell performance management, strategic business management, and strategic investment management. Mainframes, with their ability to expeditiously process large databases and with advanced IBM business analytics software (such as IBM’s Cognos environments), are proving to be excellent hosts for these types of analytics activities. 

Which Workloads Belong Where

The April analyst briefing mentioned previously was also noteworthy from another perspective: IBM actually started talking about which workloads are best-suited to run on System z, the zEnterprise hybrid System z/Power/Systems/System x environment, and IBM’s new PureSystems POWER- and x86-based systems environments. In days gone by, the joke around the industry about mainframe sales reps was that they would start the conversation with this opening line: “System z is the answer—now what’s the question?” In April, IBM announced two new systems environments with its PureSystems and PowerLinux servers and is now explaining to customers more clearly than ever before which workloads belong on which systems types.

As demonstrated, IBM is still growing mainframe sales through capacity upgrades and has been doing so steadily for the past decade. System z servers are also targeted toward new workloads such as clouds, consolidation, SAP/business applications, and business analytics:

  • System z clouds are being positioned for clients that need the highest levels of utilization, have requirements for multi-tenancy, fine-grained usage, accounting, workload automation, and security.
  • The System z as a consolidation server is being targeted at clients that desire a Linux platform, savings from environmental costs (power, cooling, etc.), and software license savings.
  • SAP/business application clients should move to System z if they need to support more than 1,000 clients and thousands of transactions or high-intensity batch processes—and want to run multi-tier applications across a single architecture.
  • Business analytics should be run on System z if 50 percent or more of the data is being run on System z, if it needs to be analyzed in real-time, and it benefits from central management of large quantities of data.

As for IBM’s zEnterprise, IBM is positioning it as a framework to bring operational silos (mainframe, Power, and x86 silos) together under common governance, delivering consistent business controls. This environment is positioned to deliver fast, flexible application integration, including support for Microsoft Windows integration. IBM focuses this architecture on integration and collaboration so business growth increases. 

IBM’s new PureSystems are described as “systems environments” (IBM dislikes it when they’re referred to as servers). There are currently two versions of PureScale:

  • An IaaS implementation, which is a highly virtualized environment that’s expert at launching application images/services and then returning unused resources to a virtualization pool
  • A Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) implementation designed for rapid deployment (or as IBM likes to say, “rapid time-to-value” and orders of magnitude greater performance than traditional server environments; due to the high degree of tuning that takes place—IBM describes this as consisting of “patterns-of-expertise”). These patterns are built off best-practice knowledge databases and expert experience and make it possible to streamline systems performance and process flow. These servers can be linked to System z using high-speed Ethernet connections to enable program-to-program interaction and data sharing.

Summary Observations

Contrary to popular belief, System z capacity continues to grow as the existing installed base scales its existing servers to meet new business challenges (such as the need to process increasingly more data or transactions). But System z is also demonstrating its ability to serve new markets with solid growth in emerging markets combined with capturing new workloads in cloud, Linux, business application, and business analytics. Naysayers be damned—full z ahead!