IBM Unveils zEnterprise "Server of Servers"

zEnterprise debuts at a critical time for IBM, which is the subject of unwelcome attention from would-be mainframe market regulators.

As we reported last week, IBM Corp. has unveiled a System z mainframe refresh that it bills as the most significant revamping of its Big Iron line in two decades.

zEnterprise debuts at a critical time for IBM. With news of a major mainframe refresh in the offing -- Big Bluers have been talking up a next-gen mainframe refresh for almost a year now -- Big Iron sales had hit the skids.

Shops had postponed new mainframe purchases in anticipation of a bigger -- and altogether MIPS-ier -- zNext deliverable from IBM.

Furthermore, rival Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) recently displaced IBM for server market bragging rights, thanks in no small part to Big Blue's sagging System z server business. Sales of pricey System z mainframes have longed helped to buoy IBM's share of global server revenues. With both mainframe and System p selling poorly, HP now sits athwart the server market heap.

That's one reason IBM moved up its zEnterprise launch date -- which was believed to have been slated for later in Q3 -- to July.

Big Iron Behemoth

Big Blue's new zEnterprise 196 mainframe packs 96 processing units (running at 5.2 GHz) into a single system, with a maximum of 80 processing units available for either Linux or z/OS workloads. This makes zEnterprise about 60 percent faster than its predecessor, the aging -- but still vigorous -- System z10, Big Blue claims. Each zEnterprise system can process more than 50 billion instructions per second, according to IBM officials -- while at the same time consuming about as much electricity as an Enterprise Class (EC) System z10 mainframe.

zEnterprise isn't a System z-only solution. Big Blue announced new offerings -- its zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension and zEnterprise Unified Resource Manager -- which permit mainframe, POWER7, and System x workloads to share resources, all managed -- by zEnterprise, of course -- as a virtualized system.

The upshot, according to IBM, is that shops will be able to manage a zEnterprise "cluster" of over 100,000 virtualized servers as a single system.

Big Blue plans to add support for POWER7 blades running AIX later on this year. Next year, it expects to introduce "additional general-purpose blades" for zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension. This will include IBM System x-based blades running Linux. Similarly, Big Blue plans to support other workload-optimized blades -- including its IBM DataPower series appliances, which it markets as XML and messaging accelerators -- next year, as well.

Specialty Processors Onboard

There'd been some speculation that IBM might change the way it supports specialty processors such as its zSeries Application Assist Processor (zAAP) or zSeries Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) in zEnterprise.

With the introduction of zIIP, especially, mainframe-oriented ISVs such as BMC Software Inc. and CA Technologies Inc. had found clever workarounds to zIIP-enable applications that IBM had not explicitly deemed zIIP-able.

Last summer, mainframe ISV Neon Enterprise Software upped the ante even further, announcing zPrime, a tool that can shift not just DB2-based mainframe workloads (the data processing portion of which is nominally serviced by zIIP), but also IMS, CICS, batch jobs, and even portions of green screen apps over to zIIP. (Neon claims that the latest revision of its zPrime tool -- version 2.1 -- can shift as much as 90 percent of a CICS transaction processing workload over to zIIP.)

Relations between IBM and Neon -- which has been a Big Iron ISV since the mid-1990's -- degenerated from there, such that Neon filed suit against Big Blue in December of 2009, alleging anticompetitive behavior and unfair business practices. (IBM filed its requisite countersuit just two months later.) Neon has since lodged a formal complaint against IBM with the European Commission (EC), which is currently investigating IBM's mainframe market business at the behest of defunct plug compatible mainframe (PCM) manufacturer T3 Technologies Inc.

Last October, the United States Department of Justice also launched an investigation into Big Blue's mainframe market behavior.

With so much attention from regulators, it isn't surprising that Big Blue is supporting both zAAP and zIIP, along with its bread-and-butter Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), on zEnterprise -- although it isn't yet known if IBM has tinkered with its z/OS Dispatcher, which decides which workloads ultimately get shifted over to zAAP or zIIP. (A reworked z/OS dispatcher could break Neon's zPrime offering, as well as constrain the ability of BMC, CA, and others to zIIP-enable portions of not-explicitly-zIIP-able z/OS workloads.)

Elsewhere, IBM announced a new hybrid facility, its so-called Smart Analytics Optimizer, which it positions as an accelerator for analytic workloads.

It's a hybrid facility precisely because (unlike zIIP and other specialty processors) it doesn't run in a System z context; instead, the Smart Analytics Optimizer is exposed via Big Blue's BladeCenter Extension.