IBM said that with the z990 it will be reducing the number of its mainframe offerings from 42 to four, and that the first two z990 products, the A08 and B16, are scheduled to become available on 16 June.
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These first systems ship with 16 processors - the same number available in IBM's existing z900 offerings. They will contain a 16-chip multi-chip module which will be half the size of IBM's current mainframes, and the modules will contain more than 3.2 billion transistors.
Built using IBM's Silicon-on-Insulator technology, IBM said these chip modules will help account for a threefold performance improvement over its existing z990s.
With 512 input-output (I/O) channels, the z990s will also have double the I/O capability, according to IBM vice president of enterprise server sales and marketing Richard Lechner.
In 2004 that number will increase to 1,024 channels, he said, adding that the number of logical partitions of processors, memory and storage in IBM's mainframes would, eventually, increase from 15 partitions in the A08 and B16 to 60 in the models IBM is readying for 2004.
This September, the mainframes will start to ship with a new "On/Off Capacity on Demand" pricing structure that will allow mainframe customers to add computing capacity depending on their workload.
"You can upgrade on demand," said Erich Clementi, the general manager of IBM's eServer zSeries. "We even introduced the capability to... downgrade on demand, which gives you the ability to absorb spikes in your workload."
"The on Demand aspect is really a step in a good direction," said Fred Betito, a director with Levi Strauss's Information Technology Technical Architecture Group. "Being able to just - over the phone - increase your capacity is something that is of great value."
Levi Strauss recently switched from Unix to an IBM z900 mainframe to run its SAP AG database server, said Betito.
After the initial two versions of the z990 are released in June, the follow-up C24 and D32, both of which ship in 32-processor configurations, are scheduled to round out IBM's mainframe product line on 31 October, according to IBM. Support for 30 logical partitions within the machines as well as secure key cryptography will be available around the same time.
IBM's mainframe business is experiencing a renaissance, said Forrester Research analyst Stacey Quandt. The growth of Linux on the mainframe - which IBM said accounted for 17% of mainframe revenue in 2002 - has largely driven this revival, she said.
"It's really going to fuel more server consolidation and more workload consolidation," Quandt said.
IBM used the launch to emphasise workload consolidation as a key benefit of its new mainframes. "We believe very strongly that across the industry, the focus is moving back to integrated end-to-end systems that bring organisational productivity," said IBM system group senior vice president Bill Zeitler.
He claimed 70% of IBM's mainframe sales came from customers who were using the hardware for new types of workloads.
IBM has brought 100 new clients to the mainframe since 2002, according to Zeitler, and has shipped more than 4,000 zSeries since the line was introduced in October 2000.
Competitors such as Hewlett-Packard said IBM's mainframe business was growing simply because so many of its mainframe competitors are leaving the market.
"I hear of more customers going away from mainframes than going to mainframes," said HP product marketing manager Vish Mulchand. A lack of off-the-shelf applications for the mainframe continues to hamper its growth, he added, disputing the idea of Linux as a viable mainframe operating system.
"The problem with Linux on the mainframe is the same problem as with Windows NT on Alpha," he said, referring to Microsoft's failed attempt to popularise Windows NT on non-Intel microprocessors.
"When you are not in the volume space, then you question how long this can be sustained."
But Linux appears to be bringing some new customers to the mainframe, and not just as hardware customers. IBM was joined Wednesday by executives from a number of companies who were using managed hosting services from IBM's Global Services group to run applications on the zSeries.
While these "Linux virtual services" customers represent just a small part of its overall service revenue, the number of customers using the service, which is just under a year old, is growing.
One such customer, Paul Mercurio, chief information officer with oil company Exxon Mobil's Mobil Travel Guide division, said that Linux virtual services ended up costing him 20% to 25% less than IBM's traditional outsourcing options.
The savings, he said, came because Linux virtual services allowed him to pay for only the computing capacity he required.