Looking back at the changes—in terms of personal communication, information sharing, online commerce and transaction management—that have taken place in the way we do business over the last five decades, it seems inconceivable that one IT platform could have evolved to support the most critical business applications throughout the whole period. Yet the mainframe, and the System/360 architecture that still sits at its heart, has evolved continually to ensure the world’s banks, retailers, manufacturing companies, and utilities have sufficient compute power and capacity available to support and exploit the most exacting customer requirements. Such is the flexibility of the architecture that—despite an astronomic growth in data sharing and storage requirements and a completely new “cloud-based” paradigm that was unknown just a few years ago—System z has continued to keep pace and retain its position as the data server of choice for both new and established applications.
Recently, IBM announced the zEnterprise EC12 (zEC12), its latest mainframe processor family, details of which are covered elsewhere in this issue. As with every top-end announcement, some of the statistics are pretty mind-blowing, such as the 120 microprocessors running at 5.5GHz, capable of executing more than 75,000 MIPS. The fact that the zEC12 delivers 25 percent more performance and 50 percent more capacity with the same energy footprint (and more or less the same price point) as its predecessor is also a phenomenal feat.
But the industry has moved beyond trading feeds and speeds, and the more interesting announcements concern the technologies that point the way forward for the System z both as a native system and a hybrid host for heterogeneous applications. These include numerous tools to improve data security, such as the Crypto Express4S co-processor, which brings the system up-to-date with the most exacting international standards, and transaction memory technology, which has been borrowed from the Sequoia supercomputer to improve the way the mainframe handles concurrent applications in memory.
The new zAware feature is another interesting development. Described as “taking analytics and applying it inward,” it’s essentially a highly intuitive monitoring tool for tracking, analyzing, and correcting anomalies in system behavior, a first step (says IBM) toward policy-driven automatic recovery. The mainframe has always led the way in automated operations and recovery, and this tool promises to take that leadership one step further.
Clearly, cloud computing—in all its internal and external forms—raises many issues for IT service managers in areas such as capacity and performance management and security. With the System z’s hybrid capabilities (about which more will be announced later this year), and its indisputable ability to handle the most complex workloads, there can be few cloud-related challenges that are beyond the capabilities of the mainframe.
The main market for the zEC12 will, of course, be among IBM’s largest and most mature users—
and the signs are that take-up of the initial shipments will be fairly brisk. As with previous generations, we can expect to see a BC12 announcement in a few months’ time, aimed at the general-purpose market where competition with other platforms is more intense. Much of the growth in the mainframe market—particularly in Asia—is taking place at the Business Class (BC) level, but profit margins here are much slimmer for IBM, and the company will be aiming to make the most of lucrative Enterprise Class (EC) sales before rolling out its smaller models. Nevertheless, if the System z really is to capture its rightful share of new workloads, rather than relying on traditional MIPS, it’s in the BC space that this will happen.
It’s also worth sparing a thought for the independent software vendors in the System z space. Those that have specialized in providing tools for the established market have struggled in recent times, as IBM itself and the larger software companies have boosted their own revenues by knocking out or absorbing the smaller players. But as the System z moves forward into the complexities of cloud computing, supporting UNIX and Windows applications as well as z/OS, VM and Linux, there will be many opportunities for companies with the right knowledge and skills to deliver a new generation of third-party tools.