IBM Sees its T-Rex Hatch

IBM Tuesday launched a new 32-processor mainframe targeted at a select group of new and existing high-end customers in the financial services industry.

The highly-anticipated zSeries z990 server, known for months to the computing world as T-Rex, was unveiled at a launch event in San Francisco. As previously reported, the z990 features much more power than the previous z900 mainframe, which holds 16 processors.

z990 may handle 450 million transactions a day and support up to 30 partitions of the company’s mainframe operating system, or hundreds or even thousands of virtual Linux servers in a single box. It also features Big Blue’s Intelligent Resource Director (IRD) technology, which automatically moves system resources to the workloads that need them.

In addition to Linux, the z990 also will run Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), version 1.3 and support the Web services standards included in J2EE 1.4, such as UDDI and SOAP.

Priced at $1 million, early z990 versions A08 and B16 will be available on June 16 with models C24 and D32 available on October 31. On/Off Capacity on Demand functionality will be available in September 2003.

Illuminata Senior Analyst Gordon Haff said the way IBM is couching the new mainframe is a break from “traditional mainframe speak.” Haff said they are positioning the machine as more of an on-demand product, consistent with their overarching e-business on-demand strategy.

“IBM is taking the mainframe out of the legacy box and putting it back into the data center,” Haff said.

“The availability of mainframe on demand services marks a new era in data center delivery for our customers,” said Jim Corgel, general manager, IBM e-business hosting services.

The z990 comes at a time when firms are ramping up lower-end Unix- and Intel-based models that have “mainframe-like” capabilities. Mid-ranged servers have become an attractive alternative because they can perform many of the functions of mainframes at a fraction of the cost, thanks to 64-bit processing capabilities of Unix and the Windows Server 2003.

“But this is not to overstate [z990’s] strength and say Unix and Windows will go away,” Haff said, noting that “you still need specialized skills for the mainframe.”

Even Unisys, the last major mainframe rival of IBM, has a new ES7000/500 series, which are equipped with the more powerful Datacenter edition of Windows Server 2003. Moreover, IBM competitors Sun and HP have already been having field days with the T-Rex name, hinting at the mainframe’s extinction to anyone who will listen as they continue to hawk their Unix and Intel servers. Still, while mainframes, many of which top the $1 million mark, are undercut by less expensive Unix and Intel servers, many experts praise the reliability of the refrigerator-sized machines: they crash less under duress.

Don Whitehead, director of Mainframe Rehosting at Sun Microsystems, runs a division entirely suited to help customers move from mainframes to Sun systems. He agreed it is difficult to quibble with the security and reliability of mainframes, but said the price differential has helped his company migrate 1,000 customers to Sun’s Unix-based systems in the last couple of years.

“A lot of companies have exited or moved away from mainframes as their legacy transaction environments to lower their costs,” Whitehead said. “We kind of ho-hummed it when we saw that they said they would eventually scale to 64 processors and with the z990 in the future when our current generation [of hardware] already does that.”

The value lies in the software

IBM meanwhile has fixated on the power of Linux, and the z990 is especially suited to powering the open-source operating system, as it features IBM new APIs for Linux systems management in z/VM 4.4 (IBM’s mainframe solution for “virtual hosting”), allowing new nodes to be fired up more easily.

Paul North, a senior software engineer for a “major software vendor” whom he declined to name, said his firm is using a z990 now. He raved about the operating system.

“In my opinion IBM’s flagship operating system, now called z/OS (formerly called OS/VS 2, MVS, MVS/XA, ESA/370, et al), is without peer,” North said. The security and reliability are unmatched. Do you ever read in the paper about IBM mainframes being infected by viruses? Nope. It would take very specialized skills and access that is difficult to obtain. You certainly won’t do it through your Web browser!”

“From the perspective in which I work, IBM’s z/OS is far more robust,” North continued. “I have found working with Windows at the system level very frustrating because of a lack of internal system services — published ones anyway. z/OS on the other hand has a tremendous amount of internal services that aid in the creation of system level code and, even more importantly, services that aid greatly in diagnosing system level problems. It is, as a whole, a massive operating system.”

Despite all the distinctions rivals want to draw between their servers and the mainframes, analysts say the software inside keeps IBM on even footing. Analysts such as Redmonk Senior Analyst James Governor said he is most interested in the mainframe software tooling aspect of the z990.

“For one thing, who cares how big the box is, if third party software pricing makes cost exorbitant… What matters is whether this is a big box that will potentially attract new workloads – whether this is a big box with a reasonable cost per transaction,” Governor said.

He said some of IBM’s investments to make IBM “just another node” are beginning to pay off.

“Thus, for example, the z990 can potentially be used as a “grid in a box” – to test grid concepts before putting them into production. This is not as surprising as it seems — many large shops are interested in putting additional MIPS to work, where appropriate.”

Governor said the z990 features management capabilities from the firm’s Tivoli line, noting that IBM will offer one WebSphere Portal-based systems management console that runs across distributed and mainframe platforms.

“This is important: IBM had initially set up two different code bases and management models for WebSphere on mainframe or alternatives. It has now taken the critical decision to standardize on common infrastructure,” he said. “All in all, I wouldn’t much want to be in the mainframe terminal, debugging or systems management tools markets right now. IBM is putting up some barriers to entry based on functionality and price. IBM investing strategically in mainframe software. This should benefit mainframe shops.

Redmonk Senior Analyst Stephen O’Grady agreed with his colleague.

“It’s a great tool for specific purposes, and as James mentioned we really believe that software-wise, the efforts IBM has put in around making the mainframe as similar to other platforms as possible will really pay off. With IT departments short-staffed, the ability for the z990 to look significantly like other server based platforms – and thus open development tasks up non-mainframe specific developers – is a key selling point. You can potentially consolidate onto the platform, doing away with a smaller servers in the process, while maintaining your staff with minimal retraining required. Not a bad option for enterprises, provided they have the cash for the initial capital investment.”

To accompany T-Rex, IBM has also released a special version of DB2 Universal Database with 100 new or enhanced features focused on improved performance of the new z/OS and zSeries architecture. Additional enhancements include Online Schema Evolution, which allows users to alter the database without disruption and DB2 for z/OS support for XML, SQL, and Java.