IBM to debut z Systems mainframe with beefed-up security

IBM is poised to leap forward in cybersecurity with a refreshed z Systems mainframe built to handle pervasive encryption.

IBM will put a more secure padlock on its Big Iron.

Next week, IBM will introduce the latest member of its venerable z Systems mainframe family that stresses tighter security to challenge both competitors and hackers in the cybersecurity market.

Through encryption keys protected by cryptographic hardware, the IBM z14 with Pervasive Encryption will offer corporate IT shops end-to-end data protection from in-flight data to network APIs without interrupting business applications and operations, according to multiple sources familiar with the company's plans.

These capabilities should appeal to organizations beyond governments and other security-sensitive, specialized markets -- and reach any enterprise that wants to strengthen its protection of sensitive data.

These encryption capabilities will safeguard all databases and applications, and will travel with the data as it moves across multiple environments. "IT people won't have to initiate a thing," according to the source.

For IBM, the z14 is more than just a follow-up to the z13, which was released in early 2015 and primarily targeted zSeries users. This time, the company has pursued shops that may never have had a mainframe, but desire better security to fend off the endless attempts of hackers. To do so, IBM will target high-level decision-makers interested in not just cloud computing, but artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies, as they launch a variety of digital transformation projects.

"Looking at the dire need many have for security, as well as the development tools used today to create applications that work across platforms, I see this [z14] as an opportunity to have a rebirth of the mainframe," said one developer of mainframe applications.

IBM is also expected to promote the value of "Agile methodologies and design thinking" as part of its larger mission to make the mainframe more able to work with other platforms that comply with a range of open standards, such as Linux, sources said.

Many large corporations still use mainframes to run important business applications. Some can't find a replacement that is as technically capable and more cost-effective, while others find it too expensive to convert mainframe apps to run on distributed platforms.

"Mainframes are not the strategic systems they used to be," said Tom Nolle, president of data consulting firm CIMI Corp., and a TechTarget contributor. "But neither are they going away, like a lot of people think. Right now, they are in a kind of strategic backwater."

For apps that handle large data stores residing on mainframes, however, the security and compliance requirements are enormous, Nolle said. That is a major reason why banking and insurance organizations are slow to put their mainframe-based applications in the cloud.

If IBM hopes to leapfrog the competition with its pervasive security initiative, the z Systems mainframe is the right platform to do it, with encryption that can keep up with hard drives, Nolle said.

Shorter cycles for z Systems

Mainframes are not the strategic systems they used to be. But neither are they going away, like a lot of people think. Right now, they are in a kind of strategic backwater.
Tom Nollepresident of data consulting firm CIMI Corp.

IBM mainframes account for a small portion of the company's overall revenues, and during the past decade, sales have remained predictably cyclical. Sales of the z Systems spike when new models are delivered and purchased by Big Blue loyalists. They stay strong for two or three quarters, but then trend downward over the next several quarters, as those shops wait for the next models.

Starting with the z14, IBM plans to significantly shorten the time between upgrades for its mainframes. Instead of a three- to four-year delivery cycle, it will be two years, with the next upgrade coming in 2019 and then 2021, sources said.

While mainframe systems represent a relatively small portion of IBM's total sales, the addition of drag-along hardware, software and services accounts for a significantly higher percentage of IBM's overall revenues and a healthy chunk of its yearly profits.

"They are in a market [mainframes] that will never be a growth market again, [but] they don't want to lose the only hardware bastion they have left," Nolle said. "It gives them an entry to all these mission-critical apps in corporations where they can't afford to lose account control."

Whatever the level of acceptance among either existing or potentially new mainframe users turns out to be, some sources are impressed with IBM's aggressive determination and technical efforts to shove the mainframe closer to the limelight.

"What they are trying to do is to turn the zSeries into a battleship instead of an aircraft carrier," one source remarked.

IBM spokespeople declined to comment for this story.

Ed Scannell is a senior executive editor with TechTarget. Contact him at [email protected].

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