Far from being dead, or being dubbed expensive legacy big iron, the mainframe appears to have gained a new lease of life. IBM has introduced a new mainframe platform. Can it really inject new life into the old platform.
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"This is the next generation of System Z. We have worked with 30 clients to help develop the system," says Tom Rosamillia, general manager of IBM's System Z mainframe business.
IBM's philosophy for the new platform is to support heterogeneous IT.
"Instead of denying x86 and RISC, we will be able to plug IBM Power 7 blades into the mainframe, together with System X x86 blades." He says the new zEnterprise is a "connection platform".
The zEnterprise gives business the concept of a datacentre "in a box", Rosamillia says. "You can do anything on any system, but it is cheaper to do it on mainframe."
For instance, businesses that run out of datacentre capacity incur huge expenses to migrate to a new facility. The zEnterprise uses a 90% smaller footprint than traditional datacentre computing, allowing businesses to avoid or delay a datacentre upgrade, according to Rosamillia.
IBM has steadily modernised its Z series mainframe platform. Today, according to Rosamillia, 1,300 clients run Linux natively on the mainframe while 600 clients running SAP via an IBM Power system that connects to the mainframe. Cognos, which IBM owns, is now available on z/OS, the mainframe operating system.
Rosamillia says the number one reason to run Linux on mainframe is that the platform supports thousands of Linux virtual machine, plus speed of provisioning is significantly faster than other data centre servers.
It would make sense to use the new platform to consolidate Windows, given that it offers System X x86 server blades. But IBM has not seen any business driver for this yet.
"We can run Windows on zEnterprise, but we have not decided whether we can justify this financially."
The zEnterprise platform aims to tackle new and emerging data analytics problems. Graham Spittle, IBM CTO for Europe, says, "Computing used to be simple. We now have a plethora of information. How do we analyse the data in real time?"
Recent acquisitions are helping the mainframe tackle analytics. "SPSS gives us predictive analytics on the zEnterprise," says Spittle.
The hardware also supports database optimisation thanks to technology called Smart Analytics Optimizer. IBM has also developed new compression algorithms in DB/2 which cut the number of bits required to store a piece of data from 80 bits to four bits, which should also boost database performance.
Spittle says there are 150 new and improved software packages available on the zEnterprise. Over 3,000 Linux apps run on zEnterprise and IBM has introduced new compilers, which make use of the 100 new instructions it has added to mainframe assembler code.
Skills will always be a contentious subject, given the aging population of mainframe administrators. But it is no longer just a platform for Cobol and mainframe assembler. With many modern programming languages like Java available on the platform, the mainframe skills shortage is less of an issue than it once was.
The zEnterprise appears to tick many of the boxes CIOs look for in terms of datacentre computing. But it remains to be seen whether IBM can indeed offer a compelling datacentre-in-a-box based on the platform, which will tempt IT directors to buy into its mainframe philosophy.