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IBM to unearth T-Rex mainframe

The z990 system spearheads Big Blue's effort to insure that its mainframes, under fierce competition from Unix and Windows servers, aren't doomed to extinction.

IBM will announce its next-generation mainframe Tuesday, sources said. The system, called the z990 and code-named T-Rex, will spearhead Big Blue's effort to ensure the lineage isn't doomed to extinction.

The machine will come with 32 processors initially, with a 48-processor version by the end of 2003 and a 64-processor version in 2004, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. By comparison, IBM's current top-end z900 mainframe, introduced in 2000, has 16 processors.

In addition, the company is expected to announce that the mainframe can be subdivided into several independent partitions. Initially, the system will support as many as 15 partitions of the z/OS operating system, with 30 coming in October and 60 in mid-2004.

IBM plans to announce the z990 at an event in San Francisco on Tuesday, where the mainframe will share the stage with announcements from IBM's Global Services division. IBM declined to comment for this story, but the company briefed several analysts during a presentation last week.

Mainframes, powerful but pricey business computing systems that are under fierce competition from Unix and more recently Windows servers, set the standard for resistance to crashes and the ability to juggle many computing tasks simultaneously. But because mainframes aren't mainstream, advocates have had to work hard to keep them abreast of current computing trends such as Internet technology.

Competitors for years have derided mainframes, with a lineage extending back several decades, as obsolete dinosaurs. But with aggressive code names such as T-Rex for the z990 and Raptor for the lower-priced z800 released in 2002, IBM seems to be trying to steer the imagery to its own advantage.

Mainframes are "enjoying a bit of a renaissance at IBM," Haff said. The systems, while powerful, "still require pretty specialized skill sets (and) are still pretty expensive per unit performance," he said.

While average consumers don't buy mainframes--with prices that can stretch well into the millions of dollars--they ultimately bear the cost of such systems when buying products from companies such as tire manufacturer and z900 user Bridgestone.

IBM dominates the market for mainframes, and many would-be competitors such as Amdahl and Hitachi have left the market to Big Blue. Unisys continues to put up a fight and plans to introduce a new mainframe line on May 19 geared for the comparatively modern Web services tasks, the company said.

IBM continues to push hard to bring one very modern part of the computing world, Linux, to the mainframe. Versions of Linux from Red Hat and SuSE run on the mainframe, though Red Hat's support will improve with the coming Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0, due this fall.

Linux lets IBM more easily offer modern software on its mainframes. However, Linux software still must be rebuilt for the mainframe's processors before it will run.

The new z990, available in June, is expected to run Linux tasks as much as 55 percent faster than the z900. That's significant, given that 17 percent of the company's mainframe revenue in 2002 stemmed from Linux," IBM said.

Software: The key to growth?
Indeed, software improvements are one of the major changes coming with the new mainframe, RedMonk analyst James Governor said.

IBM is including more data management software with the z990, a move that puts pressure on mainframe software sellers, Governor said. "IBM is aggressively trying to kick out Computer Associates, Compuware and BMC, by providing good enough functionality at about half the price," Governor said.

The move addresses one of the barriers to growth of mainframe use, the high software cost, he added. "It's been third-party tools that have prevented the growth of the platform in many cases," Governor said.

And IBM is trying to make mainframe management less arcane, with tools that work the same for several IBM server lines, Governor said.

The z990 can run modern software. It's certified to run version 1.3 of Java 2 Enterprise Edition, Governor said, and includes support for Web services standards that are part of J2EE 1.4, such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration).

The new mainframe will have quadruple the input-output (I/O) ability of its predecessor, important for maintaining a stronghold for tasks such as extracting information from databases. "You see mainframes shining at tasks where...there is a huge amount of I/O," Haff said.

The plan to support as many as 64 processors in the z990 has a caveat, however: A single operating system can't always take advantage of all the processors. When the 48-processor version arrives, the maximum partition size for a single copy of the operating system will be 32 processors, and when the 64-processor model arrives, the maximum partition size will be 48 processors, Haff said.

And as previously reported, the new mainframe will come with "on-off capacity-on-demand" features, which will let customers rent extra processing power temporarily. IBM made the debut of the on-off feature with its pSeries Unix servers this week.