With z9, IBM Touts More Than Performance and Scalability

With its new generation of zSeries systems, IBM is shifting its focus beyond best-in-class performance and scalability

IBM Corp.’s new z9 mainframe offers significant performance and scalability improvements over its predecessors, the seminal z990 (“T-Rex”) and z900 mainframes. But with its new generation of zSeries systems, IBM is shifting its focus beyond performance and scalability. Officials loudly trumpeted other z9 enhancements—such as improved security, virtualization, and availability capabilities—that the company says are also best-in-class.

It’s an evolution of sorts for IBM, which has traditionally emphasized the performance and scalability of its mainframe systems above all else.

Not that Big Blue is abandoning its performance-centric messaging. IBM’s flagship mainframe can process as many as one billion transactions per day—twice as much as its z990 predecessor, which IBM once touted as the most powerful mainframe ever built.

The z9 also has twice as much memory as the T-Rex (512 GB), and nearly twice the processor complement: 54-way as opposed to a 32-way. “[The z9 is] twice as powerful, when you look at the amount of memory or the number of processors, or the MIPS-based performance compared to the z990,” says Rod Adkins, vice-president of development for IBM’s Systems and Technology group.

The first z9 system, due in September, will ship with 38 processors, according to IBM. It should deliver about 140 percent of the performance of today’s top-of-the-line z990 mainframe system. Big Blue also plans three smaller z9 systems, too, but the z9 won’t hit 54-way until November. A similar delay attended the release of the z990—although in that case it took IBM about five months to deliver its top-of-the-line 32-way z990 mainframe.

Best-in-class performance and scalability are just the tip of the spear, Adkins contends. Elsewhere on the mainframe value front, IBM is hyping the z9’s improved encryption and security management capabilities, significantly revamped high-availability features, and an improved version of IBM’s Virtualization Engine software.

Highlighting the Strengths of Big Iron Security

IBM’s rediscovered love for the mainframe-security model couldn’t have come at a better time. Several prominent companies have been embarrassed by information security breaches that have involved both proprietary and customer data. It stands to reason, then, that some customers might embrace a platform like the mainframe that has been synonymous with reliability and data confidentiality for decades. Big Blue’s Adkins essentially acknowledged as much during last week’s announcement event.

“[S]ecurity and the protection of data has become a major topic in the industry in terms of just how you protect, particularly on data that’s stored on devices like tape or disconnected disk that’s not part of the centrally managed infrastructure,” Adkins observed. “We have worked with our customers and we will be delivering solutions to the marketplace that actually encrypt the information on the device itself, so if you have scenarios where the device is lost or misplaced, the personal information or the critical business information can be protected.”

In the mainframe-centric technology vision articulated by Adkins and other IBM officials, the z9 mainframe is designed to function as the hub of an organization’s data-security architecture. Users can encrypt data stored on the z9 mainframe itself as well as on backup tapes. “The central management in terms of the security management will still be part of the mainframe as the central hub, so some of the key management facilities in terms of decrypting the information will continue to be part of the mainframe, so you can think of scenarios where some information may be stored on a tape for a number of years” Adkins explains.

According to IBM, the z9 can encrypt as many as 6,000 “secure online handshakes” per second—that’s more than twice as many as T-Rex.

“[T]he mainframe continues to be the trusted platform in terms of key management and decryption of the information that’s going to be encrypted on these what I’ll call [re]movable devices,” he continues.

Analysts generally like what they see, although some—such as Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT Research—aren’t sure how IBM’s z9-centric security vision will be received by customers. After all, IBM took more than a year to deliver integrated cryptographic features for the z990, which had a chilling effect among customers. With the z9 announcement, however, Big Blue seems to have all its ducks in a row.

“[T]he z9 provides significant new security features that should provide businesses the means to deal more effectively with an increasingly insecure world,” he notes. “For that reason, we find particularly intriguing IBM’s concept of using the z9 as a hub for extending and managing mainframe-class security and resilience across entire organizations.”

Availability, Virtualization, and Enormous R&D

Mainframes are notoriously available platforms, but with the z9, IBM claims to have whittled planned unavailability down to four hours per year. “We’ve also significantly improved some of the serviceability aspects of the machine, where a number of things can be actually hot plugged and serviced while the machine is operational,” Adkins continues.

Then there’s the revamped Virtualization Engine 2.0, which is the successor to the virtualization technology IBM announced last year with the first of its Power5-based iSeries systems. It’s mainly designed for IBM’s Power5-based systems, but also boasts integration with zSeries network-load balancing to facilitate management and automation for all eServer series systems. “[W]e’ve been really focused on providing some caps that will allow the management of the environment and through this improved management allow reductions in overall IT operations and IT cost, so we’re rolling out a number of new solutions as part of our Virtualization Engine in terms of a new set of consoles that will allow a consolidated view of the entire infrastructure,” Adkins says. “We have some new autonomic services that we’re building into the platform in terms of automatically discovering resources within the enterprise.”

Like the z990 that preceded it, the z9 is the product of a mammoth R&D effort. IBM itself has publicly cited an investment of $1.2 billion in z9 development, while Adkins himself put the number at $1.9 billion over three years. “We’ve used a vast set of resources across the company, where it was 5,000 engineers and programmers working on the platform."

Who’s Buying Now?

Pund-IT’s King offers a mostly glowing take on the new z9, but nevertheless questions whether customers actually need a mainframe of its size. As it turns out, he notes, this isn’t a new concern.

“[W]hile mainframes are not for everyone or every business, it is also good to remember that many also questioned the relevance of IBM’s z990 solutions after their launch,” he points out. “That did not prevent customers from flocking to the systems, resulting in record MIPS sales for IBM.”

Mainframe sales have slowed over the last two quarters. Is this a sign of slackening demand for Big Iron, or have customers delayed purchasing new z990 mainframes in expectation of the rumored z9 release? Although King doesn’t proffer an explanation, he does expect that z9 sales should pick up where the z990 left off—especially since IBM is delivering a feature complete package.

“After all, organizations purchase mainframes because they believe their investments will be repaid many times, not because they care about biggest server on the block bragging rights. Overall, we expect the z9 to enjoy the same brand of success as z990.”

About the Author

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