New Budget Mainframe Targets SMEs

For a starting price of $100,000, customers get Big Iron hardware and software along with specialty processor engines

For a platform that has often been consigned to obsolescence, the mainframe has a funny way of sticking around. Case in point: IBM Corp.’s announcement last week of a new budget mainframe, the z9 Business Class (BC) server, which—at a price tag of $100,000—includes not only Big Iron hardware and software, but specialty processor engines to boot.

IBM plans to pitch its new z9 BC systems to small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) customers. It says the new system—which will ship in both one-to-three and one-to-four processor configurations, and which includes z/OS, along with Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), zSeries Application Assist Processor (zAAP), and z9 Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) engines—is ideal for data-intensive SME workloads. The new z9 BC and its kindred z9 Enterprise Class (EC) are the first platforms for which zIIP is available.

“The amount of data that is being used and stored on a worldwide basis is mind-boggling—[it] doubles every 12 months,” says Boas Betzler, a senior technical staff member with Big Blue and the lead designer of IBM’s Virtualization Engine effort. “So what we delivered on with the announcement of the z9 Business Class [mainframe] is really a focus on the data access and a tight connection to the transactions that are available. We announced [the inclusion of the zIIP] facility for data access and also a very tight coupling between the data and some of the engines that run Java or Linux workloads.”

What’s more, Betzler argues, the z9 Business Class—which facilitates HiperSockets connectivity between traditional z/OS-based workloads along with next-gen J2EE- or Linux-based applications—is tailor-made for service-enablement. “Looking at workloads around an SOA, what it really boils down to … is [an ability to] access huge amounts of data. How do you move that data, what is your connectivity, and how do you make sure the data movement into the system and out of the I/O devices has the right bandwidth and right performance for the amount of transactions you want to run with the system?”

This jibes with what other industry watchers say they’re seeing. “We've talked with many people in the mainframe space—[people who are] selling mainframes or software and services that involve mainframes—of late about how SOA is helping drive more use of, and visibility for, the services that mainframes provide,” writes Michael Coté, an enterprise software analyst with consultancy RedMonk, on his Weblog. “Wrapping a Web service (usually SOAP) around a mainframe's ‘functionality’ … opens the mainframe up to more people,” Coté observes. He cites an emerging—if anecdotal—conventional wisdom of sorts: “[I]f you've got a Web service wrapped around it, I don't care what the back-end is, I just use the service if it's good.”

The new z9 BC (like its kindred z9 EC) also boasts 4 Gbps FICON support. This translates into unprecedented throughput performance, Boas argues, with about two times the bandwidth of existing implementations. The FICON/FCP links are auto-negotiating, too, so they can support mixed 4 Gbps and 2 Gbps topologies, he indicates.

There’s a reason Boas and other IBMers are explicitly talking up the data processing and throughput capabilities of these new z9-class systems, of course: industry watcher Gartner Inc. recently said that mainframes are poised to benefit from an emerging database consolidation trend, with customers consolidating from multiple distributed databases to the mainframe.

Call it a “bringing it all back home again” trend. According to a recent Gartner survey, about 15 percent of companies currently host relational databases on their mainframes (most of these are, presumably, Big Iron DB2 instantiations), while an additional 14 percent plan to roll out z/OS-powered DBMSes over the next 12 months. That’s not all, however: about 28 percent of survey respondents said they anticipate moving databases on to z/OS from other platforms.

A One-Stop Shop for SOA?

There’s another wrinkle, too, Boas argues. Thanks to the mainframe’s virtualization excellence and heterogeneous workload support, some customers might be able to realize a kind of one-stop shop for SOA by consolidating on to a single z9 BC. He cites the example of the Hannaford Brothers supermarket chain, which recently consolidated from 300 distributed x86 servers (with an additional 300 consolidations on tap) down to a single EC box.

“Virtualization on the mainframe, be it logical partitioning or virtual machines through z/VM or other means, is integrated in the system and provides simple management of it, but also quite sophisticated management of it,” he comments. “[B]etween the different workloads, there are great performance and workload management capabilities to make sure you can manage the apportioning of resources to applications. Still, you have the capability to make sure that things like test systems, things like development systems—in addition to your mixed workload production systems—are available in your virtual environment.”

The new System z9 BC is IBM’s third such “budget” deliverable, following on the heels of the zSeries z890 and “Baby z” z800 systems Big Blue announced in 2004 and 2002, respectively. Boas makes the case that it’s IBM’s most affordable—and value-packed—Big Iron deliverable to date.

“What we are offering is an even more fitting entry point and a very fine-grained extensibility in that system,” he concludes. “What we’ve seen that a lot of customers have been asking for that flexibility … [so] there is an abundant richness of features in the Business Class machine. The special engines that are in there—the facility for Linux, the Application Assist Processor for Java, and also quite exciting is the engine specifically focused on data processing—[these address] something that’s becoming much more important for small and medium businesses, to deal with huge amounts of data.”

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About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.