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IBM's New zEnterprise – Quick Analysis

IBM launched a new mainframe this morning here in Manhattan, the zEnteprise – a trio of towers bundling together mainframe (the new 196) along with stacks of Power/AIX and x86 platforms into one “cloud in a box,” as Steve Mills put it. As you can guess, the pitch from IBM was that this was a more cost effective way of doing computing than running a bunch of x86 commodity hardware.

(To be fair, there was actually little talk of cloud, perhaps 1-3 times in the general sessions. This wasn’t really a cloud announcement, per se.”Data-center in a box” was also used.)

TCO with zEnterprise

zEnteprise launch

The belief here is two-fold:

  • Consolidating to “less parts” on the zEnterprise is more cost effective – there’s less to manage.
  • As part of that, you get three platforms optimized for different types of computing in one “box” instead of using the one-size-fits-all approach of Intel-based commodity hardware.

Appropriately, this launch was in Manhattan, where many of IBM’s mainframe customers operate: in finance. The phrases “work-load” and “batch-management” evokes cases of banks, insurance companies (Swiss Re was an on-site customer), and other large businesses who need to process over all sorts of data each night (or in whatever period, in batch), dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s in their daily data.

IBM presented much information on Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for the new zEnterprise vs. x86 systems (or “distributed” for you non-mainframe types out there). The comparisons went over costs for servers, software, labor, network, and storage. Predictably, the zEnterprise came out on-top in IBM’s analysis, costing just over half as much in some scenarios.

Time and time again, having less parts was a source for lower costs. Also, more favorable costs for software based on per-core pricing came up. In several scenarios, hardware ended up being more expensive with zEnterprise, but software and labor were low enough to make the overall comparison cheaper.

Fit to purpose

Another background trend that comes into play with the zEnterprise platform is specialized hardware, for example in the areas of encryption, data analytics, and I/O intensive applications. The idea is that commodity hardware is, by definition, generalized for any type of application and, thus, misses the boat on optimizing per type of workload. If you’re really into this topic, look for the RedMonkTV interview I did with IBM’s Guruaj Rao, posted in the near future (now embed above).

While mainframes might be an optimal fit for certain applications, Rao also mentions in tbe interview, there are many innovations coming out of the distributed (x86) space. Rather than pass up on them because they don’t run on the mainframe, part of the hope of zEnterprise is to provide a compatible platform that’s, well, more mainframe-y to run distributed systems on. What this means is that you’d still run on Unix or Linux as a platform, but those servers would be housed on the zEnterprise-hosted blades; they’d be able to take advantage of the controlled and managed resourced, and be managed as one system.

On the distributed note, a couple analysts asked about Windows during the Q&A with Software and Systems Group head Steve Mills: would zEnterprise run Windows (Server. The short answer is: no. The longer one is about lack of visibility into source code, not wanting to support an OS that “drag[s] in primitives from DOS,” and generally not being able to shape Windows to the management IBM would want. Mills said he “doesn’t really every expect to manage Windows” on zEnterprise.

During that same Q&A, Mills also alluded to one of the perfect heterogeneity in one box scenarios that the zEnterprise seems a good technological fit for: many mainframe-based applications are served by a client and middle-ware tiers for their user-facing layers, 3-tier applications, if you will, with the mainframe acting as the final tier, the system of record, to use the lingo. You could see where the web/UI tier ran on x86, the middleware & integration on AIX/Power, and the backend on z.

The Single System, for vendors, for buyers

Steve Mills at the zEnterprise launch

Everything around the server has become more expensive than the server itself.
–Steve Mills, IBM

The word “unified” comes up in the zEnterprise context frequently. Indeed, the management software for zEnterprise is called “Unified Resource Manager.” As with other vendors – Cisco, Oracle, and private cloud platforms to some extent – the core idea here is having one, system that acts like a homogenous platform…all the while being heterogenous underneath, smoothing it over with interfaces and such.

For vendors, the promise is capturing more of the IT budget, not just the components they specialize in (servers, database, middleware, networking, storage, applications, etc.). There’s also the chance to compete on more than just pricing, which is a nasty way to go about making money from IT.

For buyers, the idea is that by having a single-sourced system, there’s more control and integration on the box, and that increased control leads to more optimization in the form of speed, breadth of functionality, and cost savings. There’s also reduced data center foot-print, power consumption, and other TCO wing-dings.

Sorting out the competing scenarios of heterogeneous vs. unified systems isn’t a simple back of the napkin affair: there’s so much apples to oranges comparisons that it’s tough to balance anything but the final bill. Part of the success of non-mainframe infrastructure is that its dumb-simplicity makes evaluating it clear and straight forward: x86-based servers have standardized computer procurement. Layering in networking, software, storage, management, and all that quickly muddies it back up, but initially it’s a lot more clear-cut than evaluating a new type of system. And it certainly feels good to buy from more than one vendor rather than put all your eggs in one gold-plated basket.

Nonetheless, you can expect vendors to increasingly look to sell you a single, unified system. To evaluate these platforms, you need a good sense of the types of applications you’ll be running on them: what you’ll be using them for. There’s still a sense that a non-mainframe system will be more flexible, agile even…but only in the short term, after which all that flexibility has created a mess of systems to sort out. Expect much epistemological debate over that mess.


  • Patrick Thibodeau at Computerworld covers many of the details: “the zEnterprise 196…includes a 5.2-GHz quad processor and up to 3TB of memory. That’s double the memory of the preceding system, the z10, which had a 4.4-GHz quad processor.”
  • Timothy Prickett Morgan gets more detailed on the tech-specs and possible use-patterns: “there is no way, given the security paranoia of mainframe shops, that the network that interfaces the mainframe engines and their associated Power and x64 blades to the outside world will be used to allow Power and x64 blades to talk back to the mainframes.”
  • Richi Jennings wraps up lots of coverage.

Disclosure: IBM, Microsoft, and other interested parties are clients. IBM paid for my hotel and some meat from a carving station that I ate last night.

Categories: Conferences, Enterprise Software, Quick Analysis.

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Comment Feed

4 Responses

  1. interesting and now that hp and ibm have their unix/mainframe systems out I am curios what oracle has up in their sleeves. the mess with opensolaris and the general lack of info even when polling reps are not very encouraging.

    Ultra UnitedJuly 23, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] more analysis of the zEnterprise, see my coverage on the topic as well as James Governor’s […]

  2. […] Private Cloud is where the money is – And when it comes to those clouds, IBM said time and time again that the revenue was all in private cloud at the moment. One snarky analyst said that when faced with the notion from IBM that their mainframe (System z) is the best way to run a “cloud” he likes to challenge them to start charging Amazon prices. Indeed, at several points, claims were made that a z was at least comparable in price to cloud pricing – be a nice study to hunt down. (In the meantime, check out this RedMonk overview/interview of the newest z IBM has available.) […]