IBM zEnterprise mainframe

zEnterprise platform unites mainframe with x86 servers

Can IBM win-over cautious customers with a 'hybrid' mainframe built to bond with virtualised PC servers? E&T reports.

The headline theme of IBM's newly-announced mainframe computer, the zEnterprise server, is effective use of the whole data centre under the rather ungainly buzzword 'heterogeneous virtualisation' however, the subtext was that the long-running issue of declining legacy skills has, IBM insists, been laid to rest.

ZEnterprise brings two enhancements designed to increase its appeal for server virtualisations. The box is a true hybrid, with the mainframe on one side of the cabinet, and 'expansion space' for server blades on the other (IBM products only). Software-wise, IBM has introduced its Universal Resource Manager as the 'glue' to bind the mainframe and x86 environments. IBM hopes that this adhensive combination will pull business away from rivals, having allayed customers' misgivings on the mainframe skills availability front.

By 'heterogeneous', IBM still means non-mainframe IBM systems such as its System X and POWER 7 lines, rather than those of competing vendors, especially rivals HP and Dell. That may come, but only if customers demand it, according to IBM, which is code for 'over my dead body'. The response is similar to the notion that the mainframe becomes host to Microsoft Windows-based applications so that it can compete with HP and others for virtualising desktops. 

This is a logical move given that the mainframe has proved successful in attracting Linux business. One revealing statistic is that 95 per cent of IBM mainframes now run Linux workloads, and of these 5 per cent run only Linux and not IBM's z/OS, used as a marketing stick to counter HP's argument that the Z Series is only used as a support system for legacy applications, written in COBOL and other older programming languages.

The major counter to HP et al was not directly associated with the new hardware itself but with a series of announcements opening-up development of applications using CICS (Customer Information Control System), IBM's transaction server platform, responsible for over 90 per cent of the world's financial transactions and whose destiny is inseparable from the mainframe itself.

In April 2010, IBM announced CICS Transaction Server for z/OS Feature Packs for Dynamic Scripting, allowing scripting languages to be used for developing less-critical CICS applications. Core mainframe skills are still needed, however, for maintaining and enhancing frontline CICS applications, so IBM has been investing in its Academic System z Initiative in conjunction with universities, training companies, software partners, and major customers.

Mainframe futures

The fate of the mainframe rests more with the success of this initiative and opening up CICS than with the hardware. A survey in August 2009 commissioned by systems supplier Shoden found 72 per cent of financial institutions were concerned about how their mainframe applications will be run in a few years' time, with a similar report by software and services integrator CA showing even higher levels of concern.

IBM had agreed, at least implicitly, that there was some substance to these concerns by pushing so hard with its own skills academies, but while announcing the zEnterprise server in London, Tom Rosamilia, IBM's general manager for System z, insisted this issue had been resolved. While evidence that customers' fears have been allayed is still awaited, it is clear that the mainframe is not packing-up anytime soon and continues to be the first port of call for IBM's latest technological offerings.

Alongside the skills issue, IBM has become more aggressive pushing the mainframe as a way of reducing the ownership costs associated with proliferating populations of x86 servers, particularly those running Linux. IBM's new offering is more than just another mainframe, but a collection of tactical technologies and tactics designed in form and function to win back ground lost around the fringes of the 'big iron'.

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