IBM: Why the Mainframe Will Never Die, Part I

In an interview with eWEEK, Anne Altman, general manager of the IBM System z Platform in IBM's Systems and Technology Group, explains why the IBM System z mainframe platform remains relevant today and has relevance well into the next decade as it supports new workloads, complements "greening" strategies, bolsters cloud computing models and supports a variety of development and programming technologies. In short, the mainframe continues to adapt to evolving IT environments.

Anne Altman is general manager of the IBM System z Platform in IBM's Systems and Technology Group, responsible for all facets of IBM's mainframe server business. Before her current position, Altman was the managing director of IBM's federal government account -- IBM's largest integrated account -- where she led an organization of 5,000 IBMers providing IT and business process solutions to U.S. federal government clients. Altman joined IBM in 1981 as a systems engineer.

Altman shared her views on the future of the mainframe with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft.

Q: How is the mainframe staying relevant in today's technology discussions?

A: IBM is making significant investments to the mainframe platform to deliver business value to clients, from the hardware to the global community of application providers and partners. Most people know that the IBM mainframe has a long history in supporting the world's most complex and critical business requirements. Now they're seeing that we continue to expand System z's capabilities to an ever-increasing array of new workloads, ranging from business intelligence to enterprise infrastructure solutions to risk management solutions. And we're making it easier for IT people to program, manage and administer a mainframe system.

There's a great deal of innovation going on in energy-efficient technologies that take up less space, keep energy costs low and require fewer IT gurus to operate. The IBM mainframe also will continue to push the boundaries of virtualization, resiliency and security capabilities.

These capabilities, together with the well-known systems management strengths of the mainframe, have made the Linux environment on System z an extremely attractive option for consolidation of distributed environments. And thanks to such innovations, in a server consolidation, today's System z10 may provide up to six times the same work in the same space and may provide up to 16 times the work for the same power consumption to simultaneously manage a variety of business operations.

Q: Tell me more about the hot technologies that will take System z customers into the next decade.

A: IBM's clients face increasingly challenging computational requirements, including a strong need to address the real-time and varied requirements of transactions. Even seemingly simple online retail transactions, such as adding an item to a shopping cart, are placing unprecedented demands on IT infrastructure. At the same time that an item is added to the cart, data mining processing is often performed behind the scenes. That processing can leverage the shopper's purchase and Web browsing history as well as other information to determine additional items that the shopper may be interested in buying.

System z is evolving into a platform that will not only coherently manage these different processing components of the transaction, but will also more tightly couple them and optimize data flows. Mainframe-like attributes will be extended to a more heterogeneous set of computing resources. This will bring with it the ability to manage multiple and varied processing elements and workloads and maintain System z's leadership position in the data center. This model can also include other computing resources such as those based on Power and x86 to serve specific application needs. So, for example, a banking application might have a Web server, application server, data server. Clients will be able to manage and monitor the performance of this combined heterogeneous workload from a single view.

We will also continue to improve capacity of our systems with respect to processor, memory and I/O performance. As we do so, we will remain focused on efficient use of data center resources. Each successive generation of the IBM mainframe has made improvements in the area of energy consumption. In fact, z uses less electricity than other platforms of the same capacity.

Progress and improvement across the classic mainframe qualities of service will continue as well.

Q: Why is a System z mainframe better than, say, a farm of x86 boxes?

A: An IBM System z10 Enterprise Class mainframe has the equivalent capacity of nearly 1,500 x86 servers, with an 85 percent smaller footprint and up to 85 percent lower energy costs. An IBM System z10 Business Class server has the capacity of up to 232 x86 servers with an 83 percent smaller footprint and up to 93 percent lower energy costs.

Given these capacity capabilities, System z has become an ideal platform for the consolidation of distributed workloads. This can dramatically reduce data center complexity, reduce systems management requirements and bring improved levels of availability, security and scalability to the application environment. Once running on System z, workloads can also enjoy the benefit of supporting future growth in a very cost effective fashion and very often within the same physical footprint. If you consider the reliability of System z, its ability to seamlessly scale and the wide variety of application environments supported, it becomes clear that System z is also the ideal platform to deploy application environments supporting emerging business models such as those based on cloud computing.

Nothing beats the mainframe for heavy-duty transaction processing in financial services, retail, airline reservations, anything that requires the ability to securely manage hundreds of millions of concurrent transactions. How's this for robust? In 2007, benchmark tests with Bank of China confirmed a record 9,445 business transactions per second [tps] in real time based on more than 380 million accounts with three billion transaction histories.

As for security, System z's security capabilities are extensive and layered. Every aspect of the system has security as a key design point. Our security support is highly integrated, from the hardware/firmware up, all the way to the application layer.

In the future, the competitive edge will be given to businesses that implement an infrastructure that is both highly cost-efficient as well as dynamic. This infrastructure must be able to grow and respond to changing requirements quickly while providing the best business resilience. This is exactly what System z has been designed from the ground up to do.

Click here to read the rest of this Q&A with IBM's Anne Altman.