IBM Continues Transforming Its Mainframe

With the release of the System z10, IBM is looking to expand the customer base for its mainframe systems.

NEW YORK-The latest installment of IBM's "Big Iron" product has landed with a splash and the company is trying to turn that into a wave of new mainframe customers.

At events in the United States and elsewhere Feb. 26, IBM unveiled its System z10, the latest installment in its mainframe line. This $1 million machine now boasts quad-core microprocessor technology and can support up to 64 processors, which will give the new system a 100 percent performance increase over older models, according to the company.

Even with all these improvements and IBM's dominance of this particular part of the market in the United States and elsewhere, the company is still looking to expand the reach of its mainframe systems beyond the traditional customer base, which have mainly used the machine as a back-end processor for financial services and transaction processing.

In some ways, Tuesday's unveiling was the next logical step in IBM's continued development of its mainframe business. In 2006, the company set aside some $100 million to make the mammoth systems easier to use, and in 2007, IBM announced it would consolidate 3,900 servers onto 33 mainframes to save the company money and showcase the systems' abilities.

The new mainframe comes at a time when it appears IBM's growth has slowed. According to research in the most recent survey by Gartner, IBM's mainframe business slowed in 2007, but other analysts said they believe that because of the new System z10 the core group of customers will begin refreshing their hardware by the third or fourth quarter of 2008.

At IBM's presentation here, Steven Mills, senior vice president of the company's Software Group, told the audience that the market for mainframes remains robust in the United States as well as overseas and in developing economies such as India.

While the new hardware capabilities that IBM built into the System z10 will appeal to the mainframe's traditional base of users, Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said the company is trying to appeal to new users by touting the mainframe both as a consolidation platform and as a server with the capacity to support Web 2.0 applications such as Java and DB2.

IBM has also broadened its mainframe appeal by allowing users to run Linux and OpenSolaris on the platform, King said.

"The consolidation platform story is a lot stronger than what IBM was talking about in regard to the new system being equivalent to 1,500 x86 servers," King said, referring to some statistics that IBM released about the z10 mainframe.

"When you talk about consolidating all those x86 and Unix servers down into one box, it's pretty amazing," King added. "There are also some of the developer tools that they have built in, such as the information-on-demand feature and Rational developer tools, which are meant to unify mainframe application developers and Java developers."

Brad Day, an analyst with Forrester Research, said he believes that IBM is looking to bring the consolidation possibilities of the mainframe together with the emphasis on Web 2.0 applications through virtualization and the system's z/VM software.

Day said many customers will find it easier to create one virtual image on a mainframe in order to keep up with the pace of adding Web 2.0 applications rather than to buy, partition and create virtual machines on a standard x86 server. This could help IBM expand the business beyond its traditional base.

"That's where the growth is going to come from and it's going to come at the expense of distributed systems," Day said. "So the idea is to consolidate where you have multiple, discrete distributed platforms, whether that is x86 or Unix."