Analysis: A Closer Look at IBM’s Green IT Initiatives

There’s gold in eco-friendly IT, industry watchers argue, and -- more than meets the eye -- the mainframe has a big Green IT story to tell.

IBM has been touting the eco-worthiness of its System z mainframes, emphasizing the combination of best-in-class virtualization capabilities, integrated power and cooling facilities, and low-cost specialty processors as a unique Rx for Green IT bliss.

Customers are still warming to this message (see In fact, many seasoned mainframe technologists say their employers aren’t yet making purchasing decisions on the basis of data center power, cooling, or real estate costs.

That hasn’t deterred Big Blue. Earlier this year the company unveiled a $1 billion Green IT initiative, dubbed—appropriately enough—Project Big Green. Then, in August, IBM announced an ambitious data center consolidation initiative—this time focusing specifically on its System z mainframe. (see

Last week, Big Blue again touted Big Iron’s eco-chops, citing a new watts-per-unit energy-consumption metric that officials claim establishes a consistently high utilization rate for its System z mainframes and highlight’s System z’s best-in-class virtualization capabilities. (see

"The mainframe’s high utilization rates and extreme virtualization capability may help make it a more energy-efficient choice for large enterprises," said David Anderson, PE, an IBM green consultant. "A single mainframe running Linux may be able to perform the same amount of work as approximately 250 x86 processors while using as little as two to ten percent of the amount of energy. Customers can now measure the energy advantages of IBM System z."

Again, customers are still warming to Big Blue’s Green IT pitch. According to an increasing number of industry watchers, however, some of these IT organizations might soon take action. There’s gold in eco-friendly IT, they argue, and—to a startling degree—the mainframe has an important Green IT story to tell.

The Greening of IT

Consider industry veteran Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT, who cites a number of prevailing currents that trend in IBM’s—and Big Iron’s—favor. For example, King points to a recent push from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to get server vendors to publish energy usage numbers so customers can make informed purchasing decisions on the basis of energy efficiency.

"Given the wide range of available server solutions and the EPA’s limited capabilities in testing technically complex products, it rests on vendors to provide accurate data on product energy consumption and efficiency," King argues, noting that IBM’s latest Green Big Iron gambit—namely, a "mainframe gas gauge" that lets customers monitor Big Iron energy consumption in real-time—is tailor-made to suit this requirement. "IBM may be the first vendor to deliver this information to the market, but it surely won’t be the last."

King isn’t alone in that thinking. Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with consultancy Illuminata, is also impressed by IBM and its System z-centric Green IT pitch. He cites Big Blue’s ambitious distributed-server-to-mainframe consolidation effort as a particularly illuminating example. IBM’s plans include migrating almost 4,000 distributed servers to 30 high-density—54-way—z9 mainframes at six data centers scattered across the globe.

"The systems being migrated from are mostly midrange and low-end Intel- and POWER-based systems," Haff explains, adding that "they represent about 25 percent of what IBM refers to as its ‘real’ IT servers."

Haff says Big Blue’s migration effort should result in its shifting a substantial proportion of its application workloads on to the mainframe, and that is telling. Call it a case of IBM eating its own dog foot—big time.

"An interesting aspect of this server consolidation is that today only about a third of IBM’s applications are running on System z, and those only represent one percent of their total physical servers," he points out. "From the remaining two-thirds, much of the software runs on platforms such as DB2, Domino, WebSphere, or Web servers." It’s coming it a bit high to suggest that IBM can simply shift these workloads over to System z or z/OS with the flip of a switch, Haff concedes, but neither is such a migration an altogether daunting prospect.

"While it would be a bit flippant to suggest that these sorts of applications can ‘just move’ from one platform to another—minor tweaks will often be needed to handle version differences or even just changes in physical location—neither will they tend to have particularly deep ties to a given operating system or server architecture," he points out, adding that IBM looked at about 16,000 server images during the planning phase of its consolidation project: "They determined that it didn’t make sense to move about half; the other half were ‘possible.’"

Certainly, Haff says, "some of these will end up on updated System x or System p servers rather than mainframes."

Expansion, not Consolidation

Big Blue likes to trumpet Green IT as a means to help reduce the cost of data center real-estate, but in its own case it plans to use the space it frees up to actually increase its hosting capacity, Haff explains. The lesson, in any case, is clear: super-dense System z mainframes open up opportunities, either as a means to reduce costs (by integrating power and cooling and much smaller data center footprints) or to significantly expand capacity.

"IBM’s goal isn’t to use this sharp reduction in physical server footprint as an opportunity to consolidate or otherwise reduce the number of datacenters that it operates," Haff argues. "Although the space savings are considerable, IBM’s analysis shows that it will be able to use this freed-up capacity to expand its hosting services over time—reducing the need to spend future money on expanding datacenters or building new ones."

In this respect, IBM’s aggressive data center consolidation project also highlights the importance of one of its more staid—but frequently overlooked—technologies: z/VM.

"Although IBM also runs traditional mainframe applications in production—CICS and the like—the focus of its planned consolidation is Linux running on z/VM," observes Haff. He suggests that z/VM is "the real star of IBM’s mainframe resurgence" because it "allows a large number of Linux guests to coexist on a single System z server—hundreds is not uncommon."

z/VM is unique to IBM. It’s the product of decades of engineering and enhancement. So, too, is System z, which functions as a best-in-class hardware complement to z/VM and its best-in-class virtualization capabilities. "This level of consolidation is possible because System z has extremely sophisticated resource management that has been crafted and tuned over decades—going back to a time when computer hardware was extremely expensive and needed to be parceled out to applications frugally," Haff argues.

"Other z/VM features, such as virtual networking—a.k.a. HiperSockets, which emulates network connections between Linux instances without having to actually go out to the I/O hardware—further optimize the performance and utilization of large Linux installations."

It’s for this reason that Haff is so impressed by both Project Big Green and the System z mainframe. "Project Big Green provides a great proof point of the extreme levels of consolidation that z/VM makes possible—not just in terms of the reduced number of systems but in the number of applications that a large IT operation can move over to Linux without wholesale rewrites," he indicates.

"Does IBM IT have the know-how to leverage System z especially well? Sure, but they also have correspondingly deep knowledge of x86 and POWER-based servers. It’s a good bet that the choice of System z was justified on its financial and technical merits, and didn’t get a free pass just because it makes a good case study."

Finally, Haff concludes, there’s what IBM is doing itself. "For a while now, IBM has been promoting the idea that the mainframe is the best platform for application consolidation. With Big Green, IBM’s showing that it’s happy to walk its talk."

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