Where is IBM's zBX?

IBM still hasn't made good on the most intriguing aspect of its zBX vision -- an extension to the x64 world.

IBM Corp. recently announced a new entry in its line up of zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension (zBX) offerings, the WebSphere DataPower Xi50z, but the company still hasn't made good on the most intriguing aspect of its zBX vision.

Like its predecessors, the DataPower Xi50z is RISC-only. Support for what most shops likely view as the centerpiece of the zBX vision -- the ability to manage zEnterprise (System z), RISC (Power Systems), and Intel-based (System x) platforms as a single virtual system -- is still missing. Big Blue says it's still on track to deliver Xeon-based zBX gear later this year.

IBM positions zBX as a technology bolt-on (or "sidecar," as one industry watcher has described it) which -- when used in conjunction with Big Blue's Unified Resource Manager (URM) -- permits shops to manage aspects of their mainframe and BladeCenter platforms as a single virtualized system.

Big Blue first announced zBX in July, when it unveiled its next-gen zEnterprise 196 mainframe. Big Blue initially delivered two different versions of zBX for its old (System z10) and new (System zEnterprise) mainframes; shortly thereafter, it eliminated its zBX option for System z10, effectively mandating that customers upgrade to new zEnterprise systems to reap the benefits of zBX.

Six months on, zBX remains a still-gestating technology prescription.

At launch, IBM promised to flesh out its zBX vision with a variety of application- or technology-specific offerings. To date, IBM has delivered just a pair of zBX offerings: its original POWER-based zBX gear -- which enables integration between Big Blue's Power Systems platform (which can host AIX, i OS, or RISC-based flavors of Linux) and its Smart Analytics Optimizer, which is likewise a RISC-based proposition. The Holy Grail of IBM's zBX vision -- server deliverables that enable integration between and among IBM's zEnterprise, Power Systems, and System x (or x64) platforms -- is still missing in action.

The DataPower Xi50z and the Promise of zBX

The DataPower Xi50z that Big Blue just announced is a zBX-based offering that's designed to accelerate the processing of XML and Web services communications. Big Blue claims that the new Xi50z can deliver about 23 times the price/performance of competitive offerings.

Its signal value proposition, of course, is that it can integrate with and be managed by other zBX-compliant hardware -- which at this point includes Big Blue's zBX Model 002 (a Power Systems blade), its Smart Analytics Optimizer for zBX, and -- of course -- the seminal zEnterprise 196.

Industry veteran Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT, says IBM's zBX vision addresses the inescapable lay-of-the-data-center -- namely, that heterogeneity is (and likely always will be) the rule rather than the exception. Mainframes, blade systems, and other (older) platforms must not only interoperate with but -- ideally -- integrate with one another.

The site of integration in the 21st century is the virtual system view.

"Rather than depend on a single server architecture, let alone vendor, most data centers are a hodgepodge of systems acquired over years or decades by multiple CIOs and managers," King points out. "The typical result … is a plethora of lonely information silos where the interaction and exchange of information is difficult or impossible."

Enter the new Xi50z, which extends the capabilities of Big Blue's DataPower Integration Appliance Xi50 to the zBX world. "Support from IBM's zBX allows previously isolated and disconnected data and applications to be centrally managed by a zEnterprise system" -- or vice versa, notes King. "[I]ntegrating the DataPower appliance with zBX [should] extend the value of both technologies, and is likely to be a hit with IBM enterprise customers seeking a greater measure of control and value from … IT assets."

That's the optimistic take. The not-so-optimistic take is that zBX as it's presently constituted is far from a slam-dunk. In fact, it may likely remain this way until IBM delivers its first System x-based zBX offerings. Even then, it might not comprise a complete slam-dunk proposition -- unless customers can manage and host zEnterprise, AIX, i OS, Linux, and Windows systems in a zBX context.

That's the perspective of industry veteran Alan Radding, who blogs about mainframes at DancingDinosaur.

Radding -- who's covered just about every platform niche during his 20-year career -- recently considered the pluses and minuses of running or managing Windows in a System z context. He came up with something very like a mixed bag. "Running Windows on the z will vastly increase the number of workloads organizations could run on the machine," he wrote in a blog post late last year. "From that standpoint, it's a no-brainer," Radding continued, citing the potential of a "solid business case for consolidating Windows server workloads on the z."

That being said, Radding isn't completely sanguine about the prospects of Windows-in-the-zBX. "Although the business case may be advantageous, there is a political problem organizations will have to confront," he explains. "Simply put, the chances are very high that any proposal to consolidate Windows apps on the z would encounter bitter resistance. Most organizations with mainframes also support distributed platforms. Data center managers already report resistance to consolidating distributed Linux severs on the mainframe. Just imagine the resistance from the Windows camp."

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