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IBM System z9 Business Class mainframe revisited

One year ago, IBM introduced its smaller z9 Business Class mainframe with a $100K starting price. Features like the zIIP engine and Capacity on Demand have landed new customers, but third-party software costs and the lack of prescribed offerings are still obstacles to adoption.

One year ago, IBM rolled out the z9 Business Class mainframe, a smaller version of traditional big iron, which, with a $100,000 starting price, was aimed toward the midmarket.

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But despite some successes, IBM observers said that the z9 Business Class suffers from some problems, such as skyrocketing third-party software costs and a lack of reference architectures for key vertical industries.

For four years in a row, attendees at the annual Gartner Data Center conference said that third-party software costs was the No. 1 inhibitor to mainframe growth -- and that's no different for the z9 Business Class. Since vendors, like CA Inc. and BMC Software Inc., have historically priced software based on the MIPS of the machine, shops that want to upgrade their mainframe tend to face steep software fee increases, even if they don't end up using all of the available hardware capacity.

Vendors are starting to wake up to the problem. In February, CA said that some of its mainframe software would be available to run on the zIIP specialty engine. That could save companies thousands of dollars since neither IBM nor CA charge customers for MIPS that run on that specialty processor. Also in February, BMC said that it's working on reducing mainframe software licensing costs, but it wasn't ready to divulge details.

"The next thing would be all the third-party application vendors would have to start pricing their software according to the zIIP and the zAAP," said Brad Day, senior analyst of infrastructure and IT operations for research firm Forrester. "IBM has already made adjustments. We need to see other vendors follow, and I think they will."

Day said that IBM also needs to start partnering with industry-specific software vendors to deliver hardware/software packages tailored to that industry. The reference architectures, as they're often called, are basically service offerings that describe best practices on how to create an IT environment for a particular application.

"They need to reach out to vertical market vendors and ISVs," Day said. "What it does is you can say, 'With this reference architecture, if you bought these things à la carte, it's going to cost you a lot more money.' They would be like Business Class 'Express' offerings. I think this is where it's going to go. To show they're putting more muscle on the box, they need to have much more in the way of prescribed offerings."

zIIP, zAAP and IFL big selling points

Despite these shortcomings, IBM is riding healthy profits on the mainframe where revenue and the number of MIPS delivered has increased four fiscal quarters in a row, according to research firm IDC.

Day said the biggest market for the z9 Business Class right now is still upgrades from previous mainframe owners, mainly the 800 and 890, although features, like the zIIP, zAAP, and IFL specialty processors plus Capacity on Demand, are bringing new customers into the fold.

Along with the larger z9 Enterprise Class introduced the previous summer, the z9 Business Class was one of IBM's first mainframes to offer the zIIP, a specialty engine to help the mainframe process database applications. It followed previous specialty mainframe processors, the zAAP and IFL, which help process Java and Linux applications, respectively.

The specialty engines don't come cheap -- they list for $95,000 on the Business Class and $125,000 for the Enterprise Class -- but Forrester's Day said the specialty engines are a good fit for the smaller mainframe because they can allow users to offload work to them to save money, and that IBM should emphasize it.

The IFL specialty engine has also caught on as a means to enable consolidation, as "probably 30% of the new workload adoption on the Business Class is based specifically on the IFL," Day said.

The Nexxar Group Inc. is a good example. The Paramus, N.J.-based financial services company consolidated about 80 x86 servers onto the mainframe running Linux on z/VM using the IFL. Day said the sweet spot for breaking even on the Business Class as a consolidation platform is 25 to 30 Linux instances. More is better.

The company, founded in 2003, grew quickly via acquisition and was left with scattered hardware platforms that it had to integrate into its current business. It decided the mainframe was a good idea, and since the company had no one with mainframe experience, it signed a service agreement with IBM to get training.

Nexxar estimates it is saving 30% a year in operating costs by moving to the z9, where it can run Red Hat Inc. Enterprise Linux and Novell Inc. SUSE on top of z/VM on the IFL. The migration took 12 weeks from inception to production, during which time the training took place. In addition to the 60-day training period, IBM agreed to provide expertise to Nexxar on certain areas once in production.

Now, the IT department can more easily handle business acquisitions by simply migrating its server platforms into Linux virtual machines on the IFL.

Capacity on Demand keeps costs down

Nexxar is also using Capacity on Demand on its z9 Business Class. The feature, which allows companies to ramp up dormant central processors during busy times, was available on the previous line of mainframes. Nexxar deals a lot with money transfers, which tend to increase around the holidays, and so the Capacity on Demand feature fit them well.

The University of Toronto also faces spikes in demand, particularly during student enrollment periods. It didn't want to pay for the extra MIPS that it only needed a few times a year, so it bought a 216 MIPS z9 Business Class machine with the option of being able to jump it to 303 MIPS or 422 MIPS.

Before, the school was running a 100 MIPS z800 that slowed to a crawl during class signup periods.

"It would take the kids hours to get registered for courses," said Eugene Siciunas, director of computing and networking services at the school. "We were getting really bad articles in the student press."

IBM ups z9 Business Class security

For its part, IBM is emphasizing the security of the mainframe. Two weeks ago, in part to honor the one-year anniversary of the z9 Business Class, IBM came out with upgraded security features on the smaller mainframe. The features include IPSec network encryption for the zIIP and secure-key encryption on a CryptoExpress 2 hardware card, which makes the keys tamper resistant, according to Mary Moore, the System z security leader.

"This announcement is another step on our aggressive mainframe strategy for growth," she said.

Overall, Day said that the IBM mainframe division, though it can improve, has made the z9 Business Class a viable option for migrating off Unix boxes or consolidating x86 servers.

"The Business Class is much more in line with a high-end RISC box, such as a System p, for example," he said.

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

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