Server Snapshots: IBM System z

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Sep 14, 2007


System z is essentially the current name of mainframe-class systems produced by IBM. Far from being an insignificant item from a bygone era, IBM is intent on bringing the mainframe back into the server limelight. Don't think of the mainframe as a relic of the past. IBM's System z represents a slicker era of big-iron computing.

And it has plenty going for it. System z continues to be used by the top 25 banks in the world, and for a very good reason. According to ratings known as Evaluation Assure Levels (EAL) based on international standard ISO/IEC 15408, the IBM System z mainframe is more secure than any other server on the planet.

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"The mainframe is the hands-down leader in terms of virtualization, workload management, and security," said Dan Olds, principal of Gabriel Consulting. of Oregon. "It also is has the most robust system management automation in the industry — which means it takes far fewer people to run systems that can host huge numbers of workloads and users."

Not Dormant

The impression some people have of the mainframe is a relic of the past — a vast machine taking up the entire floor of a building, all vacuum tubes and punch cards. While that image disappeared many decades ago, what isn't commonly realized is that the mainframe has taken on a slicker and more compact form.

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The smaller version of the z9, for example, (known as the z9 Business Class or BC) is actually aimed at the high end of the small and mid-sized enterprise (SME) space. It weighs 1,542 lbs and has a footprint of 13.31 square feet — hardly the behemoth of yesteryear. Such machines contain a wealth of modern technology — from security to virtualization and partitioning.

According to Randy Daniel, director of marketing for System z, IBM has made several advances in the mainframe security architecture and he said that these advances are in three central areas: lowering the costs of network and data protection, extending IBM mainframe security for Linux, and enabling customers to meet regulatory compliance requirements securely.

Network encryption has been enhanced by using a specialty engine known as zIIP that harnesses IPSec.

"Customers transacting business over the Internet need a highly secure connection between their mainframe and remote servers and devices," says Daniel. "zIIP Assisted IPSec can provide a cost effective high-speed encryption engine for customers requiring end-to-end encryption over the Internet."

Another security upgrade concerns a single-port CryptoExpress2 card for the System z9 Business Class mainframe. CryptoExpress2 can provide secure-key cryptography and key management, and protect encryption keys from disclosure, modification and misuse. It holds a top hardware security rating — FIPS 140-2 Level 4. CryptoExpress can also provide acceleration for SSL encryption. With secure-key processing on System z9 with CryptoExpress2, encryption keys are protected in a tamper-resistant cryptographic hardware device, and never appear in system memory or anywhere else that hackers may pry. CryptoExpress2 also supports Linux encryption applications.

Strong Sales

According to IDC, a Framingham, Mass-based research firm, IBM's System z servers running z/OS experienced its fourth consecutive quarter of positive revenue growth, with 11.7 percent year-over-year growth in 1Q07 to $993 million. In total, Z/OS accounted for 8percent of all IBM server revenue in 1Q07, the highest first quarter revenue for IBM's System z in three years.

Much of this growth seems to be being generated by moving the mainframe lower down the computing food chain. System z9 BC, for example, is smaller, faster and cheaper. And is being positioned as an attractive consolidation platform for SME's with heavy computing needs. The System z9 BC starts at $100,000.

"With System z9 BC, IBM has added new cost-effective price options to make the mainframe more accessible and affordable since last summer via new application license charges for z/OS and new lowering pricing for z/VSE," Daniel said. "The target market is small to mid-range businesses. Customers continue to praise the system's granular capacity settings — now, they can choose the right size to help save software costs."

The z9 BC comes in a single frame, with one multi-chip module (MCM) that hosts the engines, memory and high speed connectors for I/O. On the smaller SME version, there are seven customer-configurable engines and one System Assist Processor (SAP). It comes with at least one general purpose processor (CP). Two more can be assigned as general purpose processors or specialty engines. The remaining four engines are available as specialty engines. The z9 BC can support up to 64 GB of memory.

Dan Olds said he believes such changes are essential in the evolution of the mainframe. While it may not be attracting many Windows shops into the fold, he thinks more progress is being made in the Linux community — with IBM positioning System z as a server consolidation platform for Linux workloads.

"In a lot of ways, the mainframe is very well-suited as a Linux consolidation platform," Olds said. "This is important for the long-term health of the platform — they need to attract new workloads and new customers in order to remain relevant over the long haul. The scale of the mainframe, combined with its technical sophistication, can even make the mainframe the price/performance leader in some situations — which hasn't been the case in the past."

While progress is being made, this strategy has a long way to go before it can be termed a resounding success. The big barrier is getting customers who don't have a mainframe background to consider the mainframe as a credible solution. After all, there are a lot of decision makers out there who are well-versed in RISC and x86 technology, but do not know much about mainframes and their capabilities.

"In the past, IBM has relied on its mainframe users to convince their Unix/Windows/Linux brethren that the mainframe was the way to go," Olds said. "This hasn't been a winning strategy. While mainframe MIP counts have risen over time, the increase doesn't come close to the growth in RISC/x86 usage in the last 20 years or so. IBM's main challenge is to educate this market and help them understand the mainframe value proposition."

IBM System z Close-Up

Name IBM System z
Vendor IBM
Processor Type 16-chip IBM Multichip Module, Multiple-channel subsystem and Logical partitions
Processor Details 2 to 4 logical channel subsystems z9 scales from 1- to 54-way
Operating Systems z/OS, z/OS.e, Linux on IBM System z, z/VM, z/VSE, zTPF and TPF
Configuration Options 890, 990, 900, 8001, System z9 Business Class (z9BC), System z9 Enterprise Class (z9EC)2
Price range z9BC: Starts at less than $100,000; z890: Starts at less than $200,000; for others contact IBM
GA Available

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