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IBM's zEnterprise mainframe forecast: Cloudy with a chance of flash

Through improved processing speed and reduced costs, IBM's new zEnterprise mainframe hopes to turn hybrid cloud customers' heads.

What's old is new again: IBM has updated its mainframe for the private and hybrid cloud market, with faster processing, lower prices and memory upgrades.

The new zEnterprise mainframe, zEC12, includes 5.5 GHz core processors that are an improvement over the z196's 5.2 GHz processors. IBM also has added expanded levels 2, 3 and 4 cache to the mix, as well as improved instruction sets. That means the zEC12 will serve more data faster than its z196 predecessor could.

These changes are indicative of IBM's drive to serve new and different workloads. Part of the concern surrounding the long-term viability of mainframes has to do with the image of the mainframe as a "legacy" server environment, said Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics, a technology research and analysis firm in Yarmouth, Maine.

"Over the past dozen years, IBM has been working to change that image by introducing an open operating environment (Linux) -- and by focusing efforts on tuning the mainframe for new applications," he said. Some of those new applications are Java-based applications, enterprise business applications and analytics, which means IBM covers all the bases and leaves plenty of room for cloud applications, he added.

Also indicative of the push for new workloads on System Z is the drop in cost for both new and existing customers. Mainframe cost is based on measuring processing power in MIPS, or millions of instructions per second.

Clabby found that licensing for price/performance has decreased by 2% to 7% on standard MIPS workloads. "What this shows us is that IBM wants to reward its existing customers with lower costs while incenting customers and prospects to place new workloads on System Z," he said.

Another improvement that excites analysts is the introduction of solid-state memory that IBM calls "Flash Express." "Flash Express is used to deliver a new tier of memory, which is indeed slower than real memory but which is a lot faster than external disk," wrote Marc Wambeke in his Mainframe Watch Belgium blog.

Plugged in via PCI Express in pairs, each configuration provides 1.6 terabytes of storage, with a maximum of four pairs, or 6.4 TB, per system.

IBM claims the introduction of Flash Express is unrelated to its recent acquisition of Texas Memory Systems (TMS). The company declined to comment on whether it would eventually switch to TMS's cards in its mainframes, as well as in its PureSystems converged infrastructure design.

Another new feature -- one that might appeal to the "monitoring sucks" crowd -- is IBM's new fee-based monitoring tool, System Z Advanced Workload Analysis Reporter (zAware). This piece of firmware gathers data from the system over time and compiles a behavioral pattern unique to each setup. Because the zAware tool delivers its data in XML format, Clabby said, it plays well with other management tools.

Of course, other System Z monitoring tools already do much of the data gathering that zAware offers, but it's the only one with self-learning patterns, according to Wambeke's blog post.

The zEnterprise EC12 mainframe comes in four standard flavors and one larger model, and can be ordered from IBM's website.

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