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Not so fast: IBM pushes mainframe toward the cloud

Big Blue moves mainframes forward with cloud technologies and incorporates x86 server compatibility.

This is the second part in a two-part special report on the closing gap between distributed systems and mainframe technology. Read part 1 here.

When they hear the word “mainframe,” today’s generation of IT pros may picture green-screen terminals and room-sized computers, but the traditional mainframe hasn’t stood still. With the announcement of its zEnterprise 196 last summer, IBM started to blend the mainframe and distributed systems worlds, at least for Unix and Linux operating systems, under the auspices of cloud computing.

According to Reed Mullen, leader of IBM System z Cloud Computing initiative, that cloud vision may come to include Windows and x86 server virtualization. “It is the stated intention of IBM to run Windows on System x blades within z/Enterprise -- you can run potentially everything there,” Mullen said. He declined to give a time frame for this feature, but “we know it is a missing piece from the mainframe story.”

IBM is working to eventually make zEnterprise the primary point of control in customer data centers to help place, manage and rebalance workloads -- “the vision is for adding intelligence to [IBM’s Tivoli Universal Resource Manager software] so that it can include business priorities and make recommendations, along with an advisor to show where capacity is available,” Mullen said.

Niels Simanis, senior technical manager with The Danske Bank Group, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, said his company will be moving from a legacy System z10 mainframe to a z196, and is also considering attaching Linux, Unix and potentially Windows apps to it using zEnterprise.

The bank will never move completely off the mainframe -- Simanis believes the better choice is to attach more workloads to it, rather than replace it with x86 virtualization. “Speed is of the essence -- we have about 120 million online transactions per day,” he said. “It’s so much that we still have to think about response times. Since there can be many calls in an online transaction, you need to have something that’s quite robust and resilient as well as something that’s extremely fast.“

The organization aims to provide its customers a graphical user interface (GUI) that offers “more information, not as tables with lots of data or statements from your account, but giving [them] a more delicate interface,” Simanis said. “To do that, it’s not sufficient that you have data warehousing where you can extract all kinds of information … we think we can benefit from having a [better] UI in the future. And this is where the zEnterprise and [its] new capabilities come in -- we can use the Smart Analytics Optimizer to do a lot of MySQL [processing] in a very short time frame, and we can accelerate XML, graphical and other processing on the blades.”

Futurespeak: Total convergence or life on separate clouds?

With the similarities between x86 and mainframe architectures increasing, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the two will eventually converge completely.

Some experts see no reason why a return to the mainframe is impossible, and so far, they see at least Linux and Unix workloads returning to the mainframe as the utility computing concept becomes more common.

“It’s never going to be one or the other -- it’s going to be both scale-out servers and scale-up mainframes, but a greater percentage of that power is going to flow to the mainframe,” said Wayne Kernochan, president of research firm Infrastructure Associates LLC.

VMware can continue to raise the bar on x86 performance, but the mainframe won’t stop evolving either, Kernochan said. “It’s possible five years down the road where they could get to the point where customers say the differences don’t make any difference. I think it’s a little bit unlikely given the technology required.”

However, for that to happen would require the reversal of current trends, according to IDC’s most recent market research for server shipments in 2010. The IDC numbers show that x86 hardware is being bought and deployed much more frequently today than mainframes, and the trend is only becoming more pronounced. 

For the third quarter of 2010, x86 shipments represented 62% of overall server manufacturers’ revenue, up from 56% for Q3 in 2009, according to IDC research manager Jed Scaramella. Mainframes, on the other hand, made up 12% of all server revenue in Q3 of 2010, down from 15% for the corresponding 2009 quarter. Midrange systems also lost ground to x86: Sequentially, x86 server revenue rose to 59% of total server revenue in Q1 of 2010 from 56% in Q4 2009, while midrange revenues declined from 29% to 27% for those quarters.

Some experts feel just as strongly as Kernochan but lean in the opposite direction, favoring the private cloud powered by x86 over the mainframe as the dominant technology five years from now. “Nothing’s ever an on/off moment, but as the difference between the relative performance of these systems gets narrower and narrower, it’s going to be very difficult for the mainframe and Unix vendors to justify a far higher cost than x86,” said Pund-IT’s King.

Most pros  fall somewhere in the middle, predicting that some workloads, like graphics rendering or Windows file systems, will never make sense to run on a mainframe, and other tasks, like high-scale data warehousing, aren’t suited to run on distributed systems. 

 “I could never see going back to a mainframe-only world -- there’s a whole mess of stuff I wouldn’t want to go back and do, like word processing,” said Crawford, predicting that “the mainframe will be the back door, the data store, the database manager ... hooked up to front ends with graphical interfaces; the mainframe is [becoming] like the engine room of the battleship, where [admins] are throwing coal in the fire, but nobody sees us.”

X86 vs. mainframe: A draw?

The upshot? X86 virtualization may not ever put x86 hardware performance exactly on par with mainframe hardware, but the mainframe probably won’t take over the world again, either. Instead, the two sides draw on one another for direction, resulting in improvements to both. That leaves users multiple options when it comes to picking centralized, elastic computing resources.

 “IBM has become remarkably elastic in mainframe pricing … and you can now get a System z server that’s fully Linux-based,” King said. “They understand the competition is changing; Nehalem systems built for virtualization ratcheted up competitive pressure to a degree I haven’t seen before.”

Tony Iams, analyst for Ideas International, said that some elements have come full circle with x86 virtualization, but there have been changes that can only be addressed with new technology. “Think of time sharing in the ’60’s -- it was a green-screen terminal with a couple of apps. The workloads now are vastly more diverse than in those days.”

Now, Iams said, the goal has become “achieving the [same] benefits with 21st century workloads, which are interactive, networked and interdependent, with user bases in the 10s or 100s of millions, and scale quite differently … but you want to marry that with the proven benefits of centralization in the heyday of the mainframe.”

Click to read part one of our special report, “Traditional mainframe, meet the x86 software mainframe.”

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at

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