Is IBM’s Green IT Push Missing the Point?

Though the mainframe may be cheaper to power and cool, it’s software is significantly more expensive

By all appearances, IBM Corp. is dead serious about sustainable, or more ecologically-friendly, or—simply—"Greener" IT.

Last month, for example, Big Blue announced a $1 billion data center conservation initiative, dubbed "Project Big Green," designed to promote just that (see

IBM believes that customers are interested in greener IT, too—at least to the extent that eco-friendly data centers cost less to both power and cool. System z executives, for example, claim that data center power and cooling requirements are becoming unmanageable—i.e., cost-prohibitive—for many customers and that customers are increasingly willing to give the mainframe a second look.

"Power costs [for distributed Intel servers] are a very direct issue for a lot of our customers. It’s starting to factor into how they make their buying decisions. I ran into a very large customer [with] a huge Intel server environment and they’re beginning to measure the acquisition costs [of additional Intel servers] in kilowatts per server," said System z GM Jim Stallings in an interview last year. "In the data center, every square foot is air-conditioned, so there’s the cost of the real estate, but then there’s the cost to power and cool all of that. In one-fourth of the footprint, you can run the same workload [on a mainframe]."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there might be something to this—at least to the first part of Big Blue’s claim. It is becoming more costly to power and cool enterprise data centers. On the other hand, IT pros say, this doesn’t necessarily translate into a win for Big Iron. After all, even though the mainframe might be a cheaper proposition on the power and cooling front, it’s significantly more expensive for software licenses. Until IBM addresses the still-prohibitive cost of mainframe software licensing, the value of Big Iron’s lower power and cooling properties won’t be enough to tempt many cost-conscious customers into taking that second look.

"When I left, software was four times the cost of the hardware, including the monthly electric bill," explains Joe Poole, a retired mainframe systems programmer who last worked with a prominent retailer based in the Northeast. (Poole retired in December of 2006.) "I'm sure many companies are paying a greater percentage than that. For example—and these numbers are approximate—electricity cost [us] $11,000 per month, hardware leases were $40,000, and software was $120,000 monthly—plus the annual costs for those products that are purchase-only or [which are] charged by value units."

There’s a lesson here, adds Poole: "In the mainframe world, the CPUs keep getting faster, the disks getting denser and faster, and the costs keep coming down. Software keeps going up, from IBM and all the other vendors."

Poole maintains that IBM’s eco-friendlier mainframe messages do ring true. "The [power and cooling requirements of the] whole mainframe data center was less than the server farm of 90 boxes. Don't forget all the switches, hubs, and routers that tie all the servers together—they consume a lot of energy when added all together," he says.

"I did some calculations of electrical costs as a standard part of computer room set up. It’s pretty easy to do since manufacturers give you the kVA of each major piece of equipment. You can come up with the monthly cost based on what your cost for electricity is, then double that to account for air conditioning. It's not so easy with servers, since each server has a range of kVA values based on what features you specify when you order it."

Server power requirements can vary for a number of reasons, continues Poole, who cites redundant power supplies, multiple fans, extra memory, and SMP configurations as power-hungry options.

Up Against the (Data Center) Wall

Poole’s account is seconded by Jim Melin, a mainframe systems programmer with a Minnesota county government. There’s another, related consideration, adds Melin: the mainframe isn’t just a COBOL or z/OS play. It’s a bona-fide server consolidation platform, thanks to z/Linux. Big Iron Linux also makes it easier for Melin to not only roll out new services in response to user requests, but to do so in a manner that’s consistent with his organization’s eco-tinged data center policy.

"We're up against the wall on floor space, and, therefore, power management. We have a strict one-in, one-out policy. No new server comes in without an old server coming out—except on our z/Series [plus] z/VM [plus] Linux environment. If people want services I can deliver on Linux, it's about an hour and they have a server," Melin explains.

"As to costs, for us it would be the tremendous expense of adding additional electrical and cooling capacity. We could add floor space with just a little bit or re-arranging. So we're more about staying within our thermal capacity footprint and power-capacity ceiling than having to eat the costs of expanding our central data center."

Bob Richards, a vice-president and enterprise technologist with a prominent financial institution based in the Southeast, agrees. "We have deployed lots of racks with blades and have seen our power and cooling costs rise substantially and our available data center floor space decrease dramatically. The reason you do not hear about mainframe guys mentioning theses issues is because it is a non-starter for them.

"Since the advent of CMOS technology in the early ‘90s up to the present day, the mainframe environmental costs have essentially remained flat. Considering the huge increase in mainframe CPU processing capacity that has transpired during that same time frame, this is indeed good news."

Data-center power and cooling costs keep rising, while floor space keeps decreasing, but Richards’ employer isn’t quite ready to throw in the commodity server towel: "I am unaware of efforts to cut back on power consumption, but I do expect our hardware vendors to step up to the table in the future with innovative solutions that are more ‘environmentally friendly.’"

Richards believes that mainframe software licensing costs have actually decreased. He’s talking primarily about special workloads—such as Integrated Facilities for Linux (IFL)—however, which Big Blue prices to move. Nevertheless, Richards points out, such workloads help make the mainframe "an attractive proposition for numerous types of server consolidation."

Other mainframe pros are less persuaded by IBM’s eco-friendly push. Take Edward Martin, a mainframe technologist with a health-care provider based in Ohio. "We are a hospital. Therefore, 24/7 is a given," Martin comments. What’s more, "power and cooling are always a concern for any data center." Whatever its relevance, Martin thinks IBM’s Project Big Green push has a substantial marketing element to it, too. "I think that IBM has just hit upon a nice marketing tool that most every operations manager is aware of. Cooling and power are just things that need to be monitored daily."

Winning the War

If anecdotal accounts are any indication, mainframe technologists believe that Big Iron can win the power and cooling war. They’re just concerned that Big Blue’s emphasis on power and cooling will distract it from other, more pressing fronts—such as, again, software licensing.

"Software is the biggest mainframe problem. I took heat all the time from the CFO for the high software costs, and eliminated as much as possible to keep the costs down," Poole says, noting that his former employer made the move to Big Blue’s Workload Manager to help lower costs. "We … used the ‘cap’ value in the z990 to set a target that the rolling four hour could not exceed. It could burst above the target for short periods, like getting through the nightly batch, and run at maximum capacity of the chips until WLM started capping the work. That way, we could move the cap up or down, depending on what management wanted to pay for monthly software."

Jim Bohnsack, a mainframe technologist with a prominent University based in the Northeast, puts the issue more starkly. "It appears that the power and cooling requirements of [our] mainframe—a single z9 BC—is a nit compared to the racks of various servers that are also in the data center," he observes, adding that he doesn’t personally deal with the power and cooling issue, but that he is briefed on it by his manager.

Bohnsack does deal with mainframe software licensing, however. In this respect, he says, it’s the 500-pound elephant in the room that IBM and other mainframe ISVs still need to address. "IBM has to make money somewhere, and with the much lower costs of the mainframe-type of server hardware compared to what the costs were ten to 20 years ago … the mainframe server [has become] a loss leader and [mainframe software] is a cash cow," he argues, noting that mainframe software development—which, in many ISVs, is performed by skeleton programming teams—has become "proportionally very expensive."

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