Mainframes: Lifting the Hood on zEnterprise

zEnterprise services 125 different capacity settings, but small mainframe shops may be best served by IBM's existing z10 BC system

Late last month, IBM Corp. unveiled its next-gen zEnterprise -- or "System of Systems" -- mainframe. There's a lot for large mainframe shops to like in zEnterprise, including beefed-up processor silicon (running at a staggering 5 GHz) and improved energy efficiency.

In general, industry watchers give zEnterprise a qualified thumbs up.

"[IBM's] new strategy may resonate with … larger mainframe customers, who currently have a strategic commitment to multiple IBM server families and workloads that have an affinity [or] close proximity to the data and transaction capabilities of the System z," noted analysts John Phelps and Mike Chuba, in a Gartner Inc. research report. "IBM's challenge will be to convince its mainframe base, as well as mixed-vendor installations, of the value of this approach."

zEnterprise's benefits are less obvious for small mainframe shops, however.

Though the revamped zEnterprise line services 125 different capacity settings, smaller mainframe shops may be best served by an existing Big Iron deliverable: IBM's z10 Business Class (BC) system.

This could change, however, when Big Blue unveils its zEnterprise BC systems sometime next year. "Unless the benefits of integrated management resonate in your environment, wait for the details of the zEnterprise business class announcement next year to make an upgrade decision," Phelps and Chuba advise.

System of Systems?

Big Blue bills zEnterprise as its most significant mainframe deliverable in two decades. That's a heady claim, especially when IBM unveiled several signal mainframe revisions -- including a much-anticipated transition to 64-bit with its seminal z900 (the mainframe system that inaugurated the System z branding effort); Big Blue's first Linux-oriented mainframe, the "Baby" z800; and 2008's System z10 release -- over the last 10 years.

In just a half-decade's time, in fact, IBM further refined its mainframe pitch, positioning System z as an information hub for the integrated enterprise.

zEnterprise is the latest refinement of that pitch. Big Blue hopes to sell it as a "System of Systems" -- i.e., as a mainframe platform capable of hosting and managing both traditional (e.g., CICS, COBOL, IMS) and non-traditional, non-resident workloads. The hosting part isn't new, of course: Big Blue has supported non-traditional workloads (including both Linux and Java, as well as general data processing, via its zSeries Integrated Information Processor, along with I/O processing, via its System Assist Processor) for some time.

In fact, IBM introduced its first mainframe Linux specialty processor -- the System z Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) -- in September of 2000, so the hosting of non-traditional workloads is old hat for System z.

What's new, and perhaps most exciting about IBM's pitch with zEnterprise, is an ability to manage non-traditional workloads -- including x86 or x64 workloads running on non-mainframe platforms.

This comes via Big Blue's zEnterprise Unified Resource Manager (zManager) and zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension (zBX).

Again, for large mainframe shops -- which (in most cases) likewise have significant investments in non-Big Iron platforms -- this make for a virtual slam dunk. "[T]he new zManager solution offers IBM customers the means to commonly leverage System z's sophisticated management capabilities across IBM POWER7 and System x blade servers today, and will also work with future specialty blades [such as] IBM's DataPower. Mix in zEnterprise's remarkable VM capabilities, and the hybrid system becomes IBM's most flexible, capacious, and highly integrated data center consolidation platform," argues long-time IBM-watcher Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT.

On the other hand, he concedes, zManager might be troublesome to some customers, particularly those heavily invested in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows platform.

"That doesn't mean the hybrid system is perfect. A commonly asked question at last week's launch was if or when IBM would bring Microsoft Windows into the zEnterprise fold," notes King, who acknowledges that Big Blue's responses to this question "ranged from careful to opaque."

At the same time, he concludes, "zEnterprise will please existing mainframe clients and could become an attractive migration solution for organizations looking to escape other vendors' UNIX systems."

Charles Brett, a principal with CB3 Consulting, is likewise intrigued by the possibility of managing Windows workloads on System z.

Brett concedes that IBM has been coy -- to say the least -- about the prospect of a Windows management strategy for System z, but notes that "while Windows environments are explicitly not included in this announcement, the presumption must be that IBM could -- if it wanted -- bring Windows servers within the zNext's orbit" at some (as-yet-undetermined) later date.

All the same, Brett says IBM's pitch with zManager begs a big question. "[W]ould it have been better to locate the zManager function on the zBX so that it [i.e., the zBX] became the host or manager for System z?"

Brett treats it as a rhetorical question: "[T]his would have been a decidedly more attractive approach, in the long term, and would also open up [a] myriad [of] new opportunities for IBM." Such an approach would not, however, have been consistent with IBM's mainframe-centric position.

Big Blue, Brett says, is effectively asking all of its customers -- and not just traditional mainframe shops -- to accept that "System z is the superior place today to locate the management of all systems."

Based on his interactions with both mainframe- and non-mainframe-oriented shops, Brett thinks that's a tough sell: "[T]he increasingly common challenge … is that [customers] often regard the System z as a specialist platform which they would prefer to manage from a general platform."

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