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IBM works to make mainframes mainstream

Big Blue's new z990 is the most significant machine so far in the company's effort to marry the largely unique capabilities of the mainframe computer to prevailing computing trends.

SAN FRANCISCO--IBM's new z990 is the most significant machine so far in Big Blue's effort to marry the largely unique capabilities of the mainframe computer to prevailing computing trends.

In an indication of just how strongly IBM worked to counter criticisms that its vaunted mainframe line is headed for extinction, the company assigned 1,200 employees to work on the four-year, billion-dollar development of the z990. The result: The new machine, code-named T-Rex, boasts three times the performance of its predecessor, according to Big Blue, and carries additional features designed to extend the mainframe's advantages over other, more widely used, computers.

But a more subtle attempt to keep mainframes relevant is also taking place: IBM has worked hard to bring the z990 into alignment with computing trends that are taken for granted outside what has been the specialized mainframe realm.

"Today's mainframe runs Java and relational databases and application servers--and even Linux," said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "It connects to the world through TCP/IP and Web Services and Ethernet."

The two-pronged strategy--extending the mainframe's traditional capabilities while opening it up to the world outside--suited the needs of Larry Berger, director of systems operations for Farmers Insurance Group in Los Angeles. Berger is replacing five z900 mainframes with three z990s. He needed the new systems' power as part of a project to consolidate the company's data center with that of the Zurich Financial Services Group, which acquired Farmers. And he needed their ability to run modern software--in this case IBM's WebSphere package--to provide employees with a Web-based interface to claims-processing software.

"We want to get rid of the green screens," Berger said at a z990 launch event Tuesday, referring to the old text-based interfaces. But at the same time, the company wanted a mainframe's data-processing power. "I need to put a significant number of new MIPS (millions of instructions per second) on the floor."

A perfect illustration of the effort to keep mainframes relevant is IBM's work to make the comparatively new Linux operating system a compelling option on the machines.

Initially, Big Blue debated whether Linux fit well on the mainframe, said Bill Zeitler, senior vice president of IBM's server group. Half of those involved were excited about the prospect while the other half worried that it would cut into sales of the flagship z/OS operating system. Eventually, IBM realized that it had no choice but to welcome the new arrival if it wanted to keep its customers.

"They're not going to buy them (mainframes) anyway, if you can't get new technology," Zeitler said. Now about 600 customers are running Linux on their mainframes, he said.

Putting on a show
T-Rex is at the pinnacle of IBM's effort to assert its dominance in the server market. Big Blue, ordinarily not prone to ostentatious product unveilings, tried to infuse the z990's launch with a little drama.

A host of IBM executives gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel here in a ballroom bedecked with various refrigerator-sized computers, one cloaked by a black cloth. Zeitler and Erich Clementi, general manager of the zSeries mainframe line, whisked the cover away as the room lights flicked on and off and drum-heavy music thumped.

IBM devoted extra personnel to the T-Rex effort. "We do flex up some resources when we have a special program like this," Zeitler said, adding that many of the engineers are now working on IBM's forthcoming Power5-based "Squadron" Unix server.

The z990's code name speaks to the motivation behind Big Blue's aggressive mainframe effort. The system had been called Galileo, but an IBM employee changed all the mainframe code names to names of dinosaurs--carnivorous dinosaurs--after a March 2001 advertisement by rival Sun Microsystems derided the machines as extinct beasts that should be consigned to museums. The naming convention stuck, Zeitler said: "The next one is called Pterodactyl."

One example of IBM's move to align the mainframe with more widespread technology is the adoption of "superscalar" technology, which for the first time lets the mainframe's processors execute more than one instruction in a single tick of their internal clock.

IBM "borrowed" the superscalar feature from the Power processors used in its Unix servers, in an attempt to accelerate Linux and Java software, said Rich Lechner, vice president of sales and marketing for enterprise servers. As a happy but unexpected side effect, he said, the move ended up speeding traditional mainframe software written with both CICS (Customer Information Control System) and Cobol.

While mainframes are embracing mainstream technology, mainstream servers have been reproducing mainframe ideas.

Makers of Unix and Windows servers "have been busily learning how to do partitions and workload management and job scheduling and mixed workloads and channelized input-output," all mainframe features, Eunice said. "The mainframe has become a lot more like the rest of the market, and at the same time, the rest of the market--from Sun to Microsoft--has been working to become more like the mainframe."

Still esoteric
But even as IBM tugs mainframes toward the mainstream, the systems are still surrounded by arcana.

Big Blue describes the speed of mainframe processors not by the clock rate--the familiar megahertz and gigahertz ratings found elsewhere in the computing world--but rather by the length of one tick of a chip's clock. The servers' computing ability is measured using the IBM-defined measurement MIPS. And Big Blue refuses to subject its mainframes to the industry-standard TPC-C test commonly used to compare different systems, despite its concerted and recently successful effort to push its Unix servers to the top of the list.

Zeitler's reason for avoiding the TPC-C test was simply that mainframes have no list prices, something that's required to publish a result on the test. But the answer served to highlight the systems' differences from the rest of the server market, for which pricing is more readily available. Sun, for example, has list prices as high as $3 million for its top-end 72-processor Sun Fire 15K server.

IBM refuses to disclose mainframe prices, saying only that an entry-level z990 would have a starting price of about $1 million.

And it's not easy to find people with mainframe expertise.

"You don't really learn this stuff in colleges anymore," Berger said, so Farmers does the teaching itself, with assistance from IBM. "We take people out of college...and train them to be mainframers."

Farmers' core claims-processing application is written in CICS, which by itself is enough to keep the company from moving it to a Unix server, Berger said: "Porting is not an option." But he shows no signs of resentment about the difficulties of moving to a different system: Farmers' mainframes handle 40 million to 45 million transactions per day, and "you're not going to do that" on a Unix server.

Not surprisingly, Sun hopes customers will switch, and the company has some evidence to show that more than a few have--Sun has lured 1,000 customers so far to a program to host mainframe software on its own Unix servers that even run CICS and Cobol software.

Boosted by new technology
IBM believes that new technology will help keep customers happy with mainframes. At the heart of the z990 are new processors, which feature several major changes over their predecessors beside the addition of superscalar technology.

They run at 1.2GHz instead of at 750MHz. They're dual-core models, meaning that two processors are etched into the same slice of silicon, a move that IBM first made with the Power4 processor used in its Unix servers. The number of communication channels doubled to 512. They have 450 MIPS worth of power, compared to 250 for the latest z900's chips.

The processors themselves are packaged by the dozen, with eight primary processors and four spares, in a dense ceramic slab called a multichip module. These packages have 101 layers filled with a three-dimensional maze of connections; the reliability of the approach compared with that of conventional circuit boards is one reason that IBM boasts of the relative rarity of hardware defects.

This June, Big Blue will begin selling a 16-processor z990. October will bring a 32-processor model, Lechner said. IBM has told analysts that a 48-processor version is due by the end of 2003 and a 64-processor version in 2004, but Lechner declined to comment on those plans.

Adding more processors will mean that IBM can double again the number of input-output channels and increase the number of independent "partitions" into which the mainframe can be sliced. The 15 initial partitions will expand to 30 in October and eventually to 60 in 2004.

And in a first for IBM mainframes, new processor-memory-input-output complexes can be added to the system without shutting it down. Big Blue had shied away from that flexibility because it's much harder to guarantee a system's stability with such deep, invasive changes, Eunice said, but the benefits eventually outweighed the risks. And competitors had an edge: For more than two years, Sun's higher-end servers have had the ability to be upgraded without taking the system down.

The mainframe's software is also improving. Its flagship operating system, z/OS, will improve in October with the release of version 1.5, Lechner said. The new version will be able to handle 11,000 encrypted transactions per second, compared with 7,400 for the current version 1.4, Lechner said.

Another speed increase will come with the new version 8 of IBM's DB2 database software, due by the end of the year, Clementi said. Version 8 is the first to fully exploit the 64-bit processor design that IBM introduced in 2000 with the z900; 64-bit chips permit much simpler access to large databases of information.

Mainframes are designed to run multiple jobs simultaneously, with advanced features to let administrators assign priorities to specific jobs or specific computer users. That's a feature that dovetails with the current trend toward consolidation, or replacing several less-powerful machines that sometimes spend time idling with a single system whose full processing power can be used.

Farmers is one company embarked on consolidation. The company is closing all but two data centers in a move that Berger said will save the company millions of dollars in expenses.

"It's the year of data center consolidation for us," Berger said, adding that the company already finished one project in which its Lotus Notes e-mail and calendar software was moved from Windows servers to a smaller number of more powerful Unix servers.

Mainframes are expensive, but IBM argues they're worth the price. "The ability to in-board hundreds and thousands of smaller servers is what gives this thing its economic advantages," Zeitler said.

One new mainframe feature that bolsters the plan is "on-off capacity on demand," which lets a customer temporarily fire up unused processors and pay a one-time fee. Customers will want the ability to "up- and downgrade on demand, which allows you to absorb spikes in your workload without getting to a new higher cost base that will permanently haunt you," Clementi said.

The horsepower and adaptability are important to IBM's Global Services division, which has opened a new data center in Boulder, Colo., devoted to hosting other companies' applications. "The power and flexibility is exactly what IBM Global Services has been waiting for," said James Corgel, general manager of the division's e-business hosting services.

Challenges remain
But for all the improvements, IBM still faces difficulties in technology and marketing.

Competitors such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun and Unisys have ever more capable systems based on less unusual components. "IBM's new mainframe is simply another stepping-stone to locking customers into proprietary technology," said Mark Hudson, worldwide marketing manager for high-end HP systems such as its 64-processor Superdome, in a statement.

Sun echoed that sentiment. "The Sun Fire 12K and Sun Fire 15K servers provide two to four times the performance at less than half the cost, and we don't lock our customers into expensive, complex services agreements," said Don Whitehead, director of Sun's Mainframe Rehosting Initiative, in a statement.

Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Toni Sacconaghi is pessimistic about the mainframe's future, forecasting that mainframe revenues will decline 5 percent to 15 percent each year for IBM. "We continue to believe that the mainframe is a declining hardware platform, limited by applications availability and lack of competitive hardware offerings," he said in a Monday research report.

"We estimate that in fiscal 2002, about a quarter of IBM's revenues and 45 percent of its operating profits were somehow linked to the mainframe," Sacconaghi said. "But because the vast majority of the mainframe profit stream is tied to IBM's installed base...the impact of a new mainframe may no longer be as powerful as most investors suspect."

As evidence of a turnaround, though, IBM points to strong unit shipments. IBM expects "in the range of a couple hundred" z990s to ship this quarter, Zeitler said, and the company has shipped more than 4,000 z800 and z900 systems since the they went on sale, with about 1,000 z800s in their first year.

"In the time that z900 and z800 have been on the market, we've shipped more capacity than the decade that preceded it," Zeitler said. "It will not grow like the Windows market, but it will not decline the way it did over the last decade."