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University uses smaller mainframe to ease bogged down enrollment system

Several times a year, the University of Toronto's mainframe would strain under the pressure of 70,000 students enrolling in or dropping out of courses at the same time. So it bought a z9 Business Class, IBM's smaller mainframe, with the ability to ramp up processing power to handle the surges.

When students at the University of Toronto -- all 70,000 of them -- used to try to register for or drop courses, the mainframe handling the enrollment system would cry out for help.

The university had moved its SAP financial software workloads off the mainframe and onto AIX Unix more than a decade ago, but student enrollment applications were still on an IBM z800, and sometimes it would take students hours to sign up for a course because of the system overload.

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Eugene Siciunas, director of computing and networking services at the school, explored many options, including an attempt to divvy up the registration process so that certain students could access the system at certain times. But it wasn't cutting it.

"The student record system, for most of the year, is mostly stable," Siciunas said. "Twice or three times a year, the kids bash away at the system."

So Siciunas started looking for an alternative to their 100 MIPS z800.

One option was moving the enrollment application off of the mainframe. It had done that with its financial software, mainly to save money. But with the enrollment program, Siciunas said there wasn't a satisfactory application on hardware, other than the mainframe, that could draw them away from the platform. The program it was using had been customized for the University of Ottawa's mainframe by Software AG, and the University of Toronto was able to tweak it to its own needs and wanted to hold onto it.

Then in April, IBM announced the release of the z9 Business Class, a smaller mainframe starting at $100,000. With the smaller machine, users had the option of adding on specialized processors, such as the IFL, the zAAP and the zIIP, which are designed for Linux, Java and database applications, respectively.

But what caught the university's eye was the z9's Capacity on Demand feature, which allows users to crank up dormant processing capacity when needed. This, Siciunas thought, was exactly what the enrollment program was looking for. And though it is expensive, Siciunas said it's cheaper than paying for the full-blooded mainframe, which can cost seven figures.

So the university bought a 216 MIPS z9 Business Class machine with the ability to jump it to 303 or 422 MIPS.

"The Capacity on Demand feature is what brought the Business Class to us," he said. "When they get ready to register for courses, we boost to 422 MIPS and they're done in no time."

Randy Daniel, a System z marketing director at IBM, said that most of those buying the Business Class at this point are companies upgrading from older mainframes, like the z800. He added that those customers have been IBM's "prime target, at least for the first round." He said there are companies moving from other platforms onto the z9 Business Class, with more of them coming from Unix environments than x86.

Daniel said that sales of the z9 Business Class have exceeded expectations, but he wouldn't divulge any specific numbers.

Siciunas added that if the university had to increase the processing power for 90 days out of the year, it would have been worth it to just buy IBM's biggest iron. But since it'll probably only increase the MIPS about a dozen times a year, the z9 Business Class is fine. In addition, he said that cranking it up to 422 MIPS was probably a bit much, but the university wanted to err on the side of caution this year to make sure the enrollment program ran smoothly. Next year, Siciunas said it might only ramp up to 303 MIPS.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer

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