z10 BC: A Thoroughly Modern Mainframe for the Rest of Us

The z10 BC isn't as big or brawny as its beefy sibling, but it has lots of power and is priced to move. Call it a mainframe system for the rest of us.

The new z10 Business Class (BC) system IBM Corp. announced last week isn't its biggest or brawniest mainframe to date. That honor belongs to the z10 Enterprise Class (EC), which kicked off the z10 line earlier this year. However, the z10 BC could be Big Blue's most compelling mainframe deliverable ever. According to IBM, it delivers the processing capacity of more than 230 x86 servers but uses 93 percent less energy. Better still, it starts at just $100,000, and Big Blue is promising interest-free financing (i.e., that rarest of commodities: credit) through January of next year.

Call it a mainframe system for the rest of us.

That's basically how IBM's Karl Freund puts it. Freund, vice-president of global strategy and marketing, says the new z10 BC allows Big Blue access to price points first plumbed by the z800 -- its Linux-only "Baby z" mainframe.

"What this platform allows us to do is to reach those very low price points, and especially for those clients who are price sensitive on the Linux side, being able to bring in lower-cost solutions for Linux consolidation on system z," he comments, claiming that Linux-on-System-z is more efficient and scalable than Linux-on-any-other-platform.

Freund stresses, however, that the z10 BC -- unlike IBM's seminal Baby z800 -- isn't marketed as a Linux-only mainframe. "This isn't intended to be a Linux-only system, although we do sell some Linux-only servers. The bulk of our business [customers] are people who already have [System] z. They upgrade to the new version of z because they can save money in doing so, and because their organic z workloads are growing."

Big Blue maintains that customers who stay current on z technology end up saving money -- hardware costs notwithstanding -- because they get more processing power for less money (see IBM also likes to tout a System z "technology dividend" which officials say makes it cheaper for mainframe shops to run z/OS applications on new Big Iron hardware. That's because Big Blue and many mainframe ISVs license software on the basis of consumed millions of service units (MSU) or (alternately) in terms of total MSU capacity. Because beefier mainframes have lower MSU ratings than their predecessors, organizations can run their existing z/OS applications on upgraded hardware and actually save money, IBM claims.

In the case of the z10 BC, Freund maintains, that the technology dividend is as compelling as ever. "The technology dividend is basically a recalculation of the MSUs, so what you would have is 10 percent fewer MSUs … that would lower your software costs by 10 percent. That's for traditional workloads. For Linux workloads, the software is either priced by the user, like [data mining or business intelligence software from] SAS, or is priced by the core, like Oracle. If it's priced by the core, then System z really shines, because you use fewer cores. Imagine the same cost of Oracle running on a System z processor or an x86 core. You get considerably more [processing power] for the same per-core licensing fee."

In terms of actual performance, Freund says the new z10 BC is a "transformational" system. "The performance of the new system is so high [that] it kind of creates a tipping point. If you were kind of on the edge of having Linux-on-z making economic sense for you, it pushes you over that edge. If I take that Linux workload off of an Oracle database [running on x86 hardware] and move that to Linux-on-System-z, I can not only save money, but I'll get better performance to boot."

One of Big Blue's most intriguing z10 BC talking points is its affordability: at $100,000, and with interest-free, pay-nothing-until-January-2009 financing, z10 BC is an inescapably affordable mainframe system, Freund maintains. Although the financial services industry is in the death grip of a credit crunch, IBM is doing just fine, he says. "This [credit crunch] actually strengthens our financing hand, because we do have such ready access to capital."

Out-of-the-Box Configurability -- Plus Cheaper Domino Hosting

IBM's promo materials tout a highly configurable -- almost turn-key configurable -- management experience, at least with respect to mixing and matching workloads. The new z10 BC ships with 130 pre-configured settings for several off-the-shelf software packages (from both Big Blue and third-party ISVs), according to IBM. This isn't intended to make the mainframe easier to manage for non-Big-Iron-cognoscenti, Freund indicates; instead, it should help even savvy mainframe shops further reduce their software costs.

"The 130 workload settings -- that's just another way to help customers dial in the right capacity for workloads and therefore reduce their software costs. If you're running on a z9 BC, you had far fewer capacity settings. Maybe what you really needed was a capacity setting between the one you're using and the one below it. Because we offer far more [capacity] settings, you can now dial in the exact capacity that you need for the workloads you're running." Big Blue's z10 BC marketing blitz also touts a new Domino "specialty engine." This is something of a misnomer, Freund concedes: the "specialty engine" in this case consists of Domino running in a Linux IFL. At the same time, he stresses, Domino-on-Linux-on-System-z is a particularly compelling proposition.

"As part of what we're doing with Project Big Green, we've been running Domino on zLinux. In doing so, obviously, we found that it runs very, very well. We're working with our Software Group as a result of that project to improve the software that's available on zLinux," he explains. "Now Domino on System z Linux is very, very highly tuned. We're using it internally now for all of our Internet access for the IBM employees. That's all running on Domino-on-Linux-on-System-z. We just wanted to run some benchmarks and say, 'Okay, if I'm upgrading from a z9 to a z10 BC, and I'm interested in your consolidation proposals, what if I consolidated a bunch of my Domino servers?' What we concluded is that one IFL can support up to 7,500 Domino users."

A Mid-Market Home Run?

Industry watchers generally give Big Blue's newest Big Iron deliverable high marks.

According to industry veteran Joe Clabby, a principal with Clabby Analytics, "Probably the biggest challenge facing IBM System z … marketing organization is to reposition its venerable mainframe as a new workload/consolidation server. IBM's next biggest System z challenge is getting CEOs, line-of-business executives, and IT … managers to recognize this and to understand that mainframes can often do a more work for less energy in a smaller footprint than continually expanding, energy-wasting x86 server farms."

The z10 BC, to all appearances, addresses just this requirement, Clabby indicates, while at the same time highlighting another key selling point of the thoroughly modern mainframe: its affordability. In this respect, in particular, Big Blue's newest Business Class deliverable goes its predecessor one better. "The z9BC is one helluva machine, but for those customers who were simply looking for a robust Java application/Web server/consolidation solution it was too much," he argues.

"These issues have, however, been corrected in the z9BC's new replacement. … The z10 BC processor design uses cache differently and is much faster than the z9BC. Its base configuration includes more memory, it is air cooled, and the cost of specialty processors has been significantly reduced, and these three adjustments alone will make it far more appealing to the mid-sized companies that IBM is looking to attract."

If the z9 BC slightly missed the mark -- call it a stand-up triple, in baseball-speak -- the z10 BC seems like a home run, Clabby concludes.

"Yes, it carries an initial price premium when compared to acquisition costs for far less sophisticated x86 environments, but add-in how much it costs to operate, manage, and secure those environments over time and the z10BC will almost always cost far less to operate than comparable distributed server environments," he concludes.

"IBM's System z is the most cost effective server architecture on the market for running secure, generalized batch, interactive, transactional, and new Java workloads. Overall, these are the arguments and value propositions that really matter to mid-market customers, and that is why the System z10BC should help IBM finally gain entry to the midmarket with mainframe technology."

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