IBM unleashes new 'Raptor' mainframe

Big Blue on Monday will debut its newest model in the old-guard mainframe line, a less-expensive system that can run only newer software.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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IBM on Monday will debut its newest model in the old-guard mainframe line, a less-expensive system code-named Raptor that can run only newer software.

The new z800 is in a sense mainframe "lite." With a stripped-down operating system called z/OS.e, it can run only newer programs such as Internet software, Siebel Systems' customer tracking software, or SAP's accounting and inventory software.

The new system, the second with IBM's new 64-bit mainframe CPU, is profoundly important to IBM's server line. With its lower price and forward-looking software capability, it's the tip of the spear in IBM's continuing efforts to woo new buyers that for much of the 1990s the industry had given up for dead.

IBM loves mainframes because sales of the systems typically bring years of revenue from maintenance and software license agreements--just the type of recurring revenue that helped carry the company through the current economic downturn comparatively unscathed.

Running Linux and other newer software has helped recharge IBM's mainframe business, the company and analysts say. Because of the new software, 2001 was "the first time in 13 years that mainframe revenues grew at all," Bill Zeitler, head of IBM's four server groups, said in an earlier interview.

IBM hopes to expand the mainframe customer base with the new machine.

"Last year we had over 75 brand-new, non-mainframe customers who came to the platform via Linux. We do anticipate a fairly large number of customers who have not had the experience before," said Rich Lechner, vice president of marketing for IBM's eServer group.

The new system, with a starting price of $375,000--including three years of maintenance from IBM--may not sound cheap, but the cost is substantially lower than that of full-featured models that cost at least twice that.

The system isn't for all mainframe customers. "z/OS.e exclusively runs new workloads," Lechner said. "It won't run legacy transactional systems" with software written in CICS, COBOL or Fortran.

However, if customers want, they can pay for upgrades that will elevate the z800 to a lower-end z900, which can run all those older packages. The z800 won't go all the way, however, because it tops out at four CPUs, while the z900 can accommodate 16 CPUs.

An upgrade path that leads this high is a novelty for IBM. "Unlike other entrees in the past into the middle market, which were not quite the same as the flagship mainframe of its time, the z800 truly is a baby z900," Lechner said.

Gartner analysts Mike Chuba and John Phelps say that if Raptor is to devour competitive high-end Unix systems, IBM's Linux initiatives must provide the impetus.

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The code name is a ding at Sun, which has invoked the "dinosaur" label to deride the mainframe line, whose legacy spans more than three decades. Though Unisys still sells mainframes, IBM has the lion's share of the market, and most other mainframe makers have left the business.

"After Sun started running nasty dinosaur ads, we changed all the code names for our mainframe servers to be meat-eating dinosaurs," Zeitler said in a speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

Sun, however, is steadily edging closer to mainframe capabilities with its higher-end Unix servers. IBM is adding similar improvements to its own Unix servers, arguing that its greater mainframe experience will counteract Sun's Unix server lead.

IBM has been heavily pushing the ability to run the Linux operating system on its mainframe line. It chose to first discuss the z800 as a Linux-only model.

But Linux was more of an afterthought in the z800 design, Lechner said.

"Raptor was born before we had the notion of having a Linux-only model," he said. "Then, with the success we saw in the marketplace last year in Linux, that's why we introduced the Linux-only model."

The z800s will go on sale worldwide March 29, he said.