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IBM expands top-end mainframe

Big Blue has released two new higher-end models of its z990 mainframe, along with a promotion to coax customers to try blade servers and other products.

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Stephen Shankland
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IBM released on Tuesday two new higher-end versions of its z990 mainframe, along with a promotion to coax customers to try blade servers and other Big Blue products.

When IBM began selling in May the first z990, code-named T-Rex, there were two configurations: Model A with eight processors and Model B with 16. Now the company will sell Model C with 24 processors and Model D with 32, IBM said.

IBM is trying to make the new systems more appealing in other ways as well. For one thing, customers that buy the z990 will get a discount of as much as $250,000 if they also buy IBM's WebSphere e-commerce software, its BladeCenter server and its grid software for sharing jobs across multiple computers. For another, IBM is training hundreds of in-house "systems architects," a new category of technical specialists, to help customers consolidate complicated systems onto centralized mainframes.

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Mainframes, blade servers, grid software and some WebSphere technology are part of IBM's on-demand computing effort to make hardware and software better able to adapt to changing workload requirements.

IBM has been rejuvenating its venerable mainframe systems with new technology, such as the Linux operating system, in an effort to counter the perception that the mainframes are legacy systems that eventually will be phased out. Key to the plan is speeding performance while improving features such as reliability and flexibility to give mainframes an edge against ever-better Unix servers from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and IBM itself.

Mainframes still don't come cheap, though. The lowest-end z990 costs more than $1 million.

Linux has helped IBM boost mainframes, in particular through the idea of server consolidation, said Chad Robinson, an analyst at the Robert Frances Group. Linux has made many more applications available on mainframes, letting customers run software that previously had required a sprawling complex of Intel or Unix servers, he said.

Consequently, he said, some of the movement away from mainframes has turned around.

"In our conversations with clients over the past six to nine months, we've seen almost a reverse of the trend because of Linux. Because you can run workload on a Linux-Intel environment or mainframe environment, you've got the Intel server administrators having renewed interest in the mainframe," Robinson said.

Several other new features are expected to be available by Oct. 31, IBM said:

•  IBM improved its on-off capacity-on-demand feature, which lets customers pay to fire up extra processing power temporarily to accommodate spikes in computing demand. The on-off feature that had worked with IBM's z/OS mainframe operating system now can be used to add new Linux computing capacity as well, IBM said.

•  The z990's Parallel Sysplex technology to yoke multiple mainframes together can now link mainframes as far as 62 miles apart. And IBM is enabling use of a cryptographic coprocessor that speeds encrypted communication.

•  Linux partitions on the z990 will be able to communicate with networked storage systems using Fibre Channel technology.