Case Study: z9 Rescues University from Processing Flood While Reducing Costs

The University of Toronto implements IBM’s new z9 Business Class system to increase and improve service levels while reducing costs

One of the most prominent adopters of IBM Corp.’s new z9 Business Class (z9 BC) mainframe isn’t really a “business” at all, but don’t let its academic pedigree fool you. The University of Toronto is as much an enterprise as any Global 2000 company. It supports tens of thousands of end users; suffers from an over-worked, under-staffed IT organization; must support a portfolio of administrative, financial, payroll, and other applications; and has a significant investment in mainframe hardware.

The U of T has hosted some or all of its vital IT operations on mainframe hardware for more than three decades. Until recently, end users and administrative personnel probably felt as if the university was hosting its current Big Iron workload—a student enrollment management system, along with a host of database workloads—on mainframe hardware that was at least three decades old, too. That wasn’t the case, of course—the school’s mainframe system was a 100 MIPS z800 (2066), which was just a few years old—but U of T’s Baby Z was hard-pressed to keep up with its ever-expanding workload requirements.

“The last day to drop a course gets to be a very busy time, and there are other particular times in the year that are very, very busy. We have 65,000-70,000 students, and we have several thousand administrators,” explains Eugene Siciunas, director of computing and networking services with the University of Toronto. “Our existing MVS processors were just getting killed for days on end.” Siciunas and his colleagues tried a number of different strategies before they took the z9 BC plunge, including assigning users specific days (based on their surnames) during which they could access system resources. The approach proved to be unpopular with students and administrators. “Your window would be a particular day in a particular time slot, and even then it was taking kids upwards of hours to do what they needed to do [on the system].”

z9 to the Rescue

More than a decade ago, U of T moved its financial and payroll applications from the mainframe onto SAP and AIX. Just before the Y2K deadline, the university decided to replace its mainframe-based student enrollment system, too. But Siciunas and other administrators didn’t consider—or didn’t strongly consider—shifting that application off the mainframe. After all, the school’s Big-Iron-based enrollment management system had provided secure, reliable, and available service levels for nearly two decades. While the move to SAP on AIX had been prompted mostly by the promise of significant cost savings, there simply wasn’t a compelling alternative in this case.

U of T had a very good reason to keep its student-enrollment system right where it was—i.e., on the mainframe: another Canadian institution, the University of Ottawa, was using an MVS-based enrollment management application that it had co-developed with Software AG. U of T took a look and decided that this application would suit its needs—with a few modifications, of course.

One such tweak was a change in processor underpinnings. Initially, the University of Toronto used a z800 (100 MIPS System 2066) to support its new student enrollment system. The rub, Siciunas says, is that U of T’s workloads rapidly outstripped this system’s performance capabilities, thanks mostly to surging student enrollment. “That was just barely adequate throughout most of the year, and it just died when the spikes occurred,” Siciunas notes.

Clearly, it was time to make a change. But until IBM announced its z9 Business Class servers, the catalyst for such a change—namely, an affordable and highly configurable mainframe system—wasn’t in the offing.

The z9 BC changed all that. For one thing, Big Blue ships Business Class systems in both one-to-three and one-to-four processor configurations, and bundles not just z/OS but Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), zSeries Application Assist Processor (zAAP), and z9 Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) engines with it, too. The point, IBM officials say, is that customers can buy in at a very low price point—$100,000—and add capacity as their workloads increase. In U of T’s case, that’s exactly what happened, according to Siciuna: “We went to the 2096, which was about 216 MIPS, and since then we’ve gone from 303 [MIPS] all the way up to 422. This is a 422 MIPS machine.”

Siciunas also lauds the z9 BC’s Capacity-on-Demand (CoD) feature, which permits U of T to turn on spare capacity during peak periods. While CoD does come at a cost, Siciunas allows, it’s still much cheaper than paying for full-bore capacity on a year-round basis.

“It still is pricey. They have several charges. One is a daily hardware charge, and there’s a monthly software charge, too, but our need is so sporadic that it really does make sense. We use it [for] maybe 12 days a year spread out over 4 months, so it gives us a hell of a bang for the buck.”

The University of Toronto is still getting the feel of the z9 BC, but Siciunas says he’s already thinking about taking further advantage of the IFL that’s bundled with it. “We have the built-in IFL, and we’re toying with moving the database functions over to it to get them off MVS. We were toying with it earlier when we thought this was a way to free up MVS cycles, [or] use [MIPS capacity] for the other Linux applications,” he concludes. “We also have an encryption engine, which we haven’t yet had the need to invoke. There could be some situations in which we make more use of that, too.”

About the Author

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

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