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Not Your Father’s Mainframe

The latest zEnterprise technology illustrates its ongoing evolution and relevance

7/9/2012 10:32:06 AM | Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series about the IBM’s mainframe’s past, present and future. For more, see "A Brief History of the Mainframe," "Myth Busting" and "The Next Generation."

As energy costs continue to rise, the need to consolidate heterogeneous workloads on technology with a smaller carbon footprint is becoming critical to organizations. Factor in space and high labor costs to maintain large data centers, and you have a clear business argument for consolidation. Today’s eco-friendly mainframe requires less power, but more importantly, it supports multiple OSs with a much smaller footprint. This is only one of the ways we see the modern mainframe’s ongoing evolution and increased relevance in IT.


The IBM zEnterprise System supports Linux, one of the fastest-growing environments to run these heterogeneous workloads. On IBM’s virtual machine OS, called z/VM, clients can deploy Red Hat or SUSE Linux environments in minutes.

With the introduction of the IBM System z BladeCenter Extension (zBX) the zEnterprise platform also runs Windows, AIX and Linux on Intel. This new rack technology allows organizations to add Intel and Power blades to their mainframe. These blades virtually run every application program on the planet, and can be connected to core z/OS applications over a high-speed secure private network. This type of hybrid computing provides zEnterprise customers with the greatest amount of flexibility to run new workloads, control all of their applications, and the platforms they run on.

One of the fastest growing sources for new workloads on the mainframe has been from Java. Created by Sun Microsystems almost two decades ago, Java is a computer language that allows developers to write their code once, and run it anywhere. These new Java workloads are supported by mainframe’s z/OS, z/VM and zBX operating environments. To allow Java applications to scale like traditional COBOL or PL/1 applications, the IBM WebSphere Application Server (WAS) can be deployed. It provides the infrastructure businesses need to manage their Web-based applications and provide high availability. You never want a Web application to be unavailable, because your competition is just a click away. To make these applications run faster, mainframes have specialty processors that just handle the Java/WAS workloads. This lowers the overall cost of Java applications collocated along side traditional mainframe applications.

In 2010, CA, a large mainframe software provider, conducted a study around cloud computing, “Mainframe—The Ultimate Cloud Platform?” It found: “Some 79 percent of organizations believe mainframe is an essential component of their cloud computing strategy … 70 percent of respondents agree that cloud computing will sustain or extend the mainframe environment.” The survey also revealed that, “82 percent of respondents reported that they intent to use the mainframe in the future either as much or more than today.”

A recurring theme in such studies is cloud computing. Today, you barely have to wait more than 15 minutes before seeing an advertisement on television talking about the cloud, or backing up your music and apps to the cloud. One of the main functions of a cloud solution used to deploy business applications is the ability to grow dynamically. That’s the real promise of cloud. As a business grows, the cloud can handle provisioning additional servers, memory and software, so you don’t have to.

The zEnterprise System is well suited for cloud computing, and, in some regards, is the poster child for cloud computing. The latest generations of mainframes have always had the ability to grow automatically as demand increased, because these machines ship with additional processors, and memory. When the workload increases, like during the holiday shopping season for retailers, mainframes have been able to handle the additional transactions on-demand. Deployment environments like WAS on z/OS, or WAS on Linux on System z make sure these applications scale, and stay up.

Another aspect of cloud computing is the ability to create new servers on the fly. These can be used for standalone workloads, like a Web server or test machines to try out a new programming concept. The zEnterprise System is well suited for these types of tasks. As mentioned earlier, the z/VM OS can be used to dynamically create and provision Linux servers in minutes. A single Redhat or SUSE Linux system image can be easily maintained centrally. When you need a new server, a GUI allows you to create a new virtual machine, allocate virtual processors, memory and, in minutes, it’s ready for work.

By comparison, if you needed an additional PC at home, consider the amount of work involved. You would have to buy the PC, load all the software, perhaps add more memory, and then connect it to your network. The process could take hours or days. These capabilities have been part of mainframes for more than a decade.

The future of mainframe will likely be debated annually. As data centers continue to consolidate, and technology becomes more eco-friendly, requiring less power, zEnterprise technology will continue to play a much greater role. This platform has the ability to consolidate any workload, and its Energy Star rating makes it perfect for green initiatives. If data centers choose to consolidate various workloads on the zEnterprise platform, future surveys will likely show a reduction in the number of mainframes in the data center. As more powerful mainframes enter the market, with greater capacity, faster processors and lower energy costs, the outcome will be even fewer machines required to handle the same or greater workloads.

Often over looked in the discussions over moving off the mainframe, or the quest for new resources are the attributes that drew businesses to mainframes in the first place, high availability and security. This last segment will focus on zEnterprise environment’s rock solid security and amazing system availability. In a age of highly publicized computer hacking, and system outages, the System z platfrom remains the IT industry’s gold standard for reliability.

In fact, the “z” in System z stands for zero downtime, and today’s zEnterprise System is no exception with 99.999 percent availability. This can be improved by connecting a number of zEnterprise Systems together, called a Parallel Sysplex. Here a company’s applications can run on multiple machines in the Sysplex, and if one machine fails, the other system continues to run those applications with no downtime. To put this in a business perspective, if a finance industry company is down, each minute of downtime equates to about $1 million per minute. An outage of an hour can cripple an institution. An outage of a day can put them out of business.

Renowned for its security, the primary System z operating system, z/OS, has the highest security rating or classification for any commercially available server. With an EAL5 rating from International Standards Organization, it’s the most secure system on the market. According to securityfocus.com, no version of z/OS has ever had a OS vulnerability; these are security holes, or back doors that hackers could potentially exploit. OS vulnerabilities are not the same as computer viruses, and for the record z/OS has never had a virus.

Advancements like these, are not the types of things you would find on a dying platform. They represent an ongoing investment in proven technology that allows businesses to stay in business, and grow with the times. In addition, the zEnterprise platform is perfect for consolidating virtually any data center.

But who’s going to support all these server-consolidation projects? Where will companies get these resources? How will new hires learn about mainframes, and take over system leadership roles? The next installment will address this concern, which is shared among IT executives, and provide some practical answers as to who will be our supporting the next generation of mainframe.

Al Grega is a worldwide sales executive for IBM WebSphere Software on the System z platform. Previously, he owned worldwide sales for IBM Rational Enterprise Modernization software and compilers. He has more than 30 years of experience ranging from OS development to services, marketing and product management.

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