IBM this week introduced the first major overhaul to its System z mainframe line in three years. This latest Big Iron from IBM could be a welcome development for the company, which has seen its mainframe business struggle for several months.
For the past two quarters, both Gartner and IDC noted that IBM's System z and System i families of mainframe and midrange computers, have been down compared to 2006 sales, while System p (RISC) and System x (x86) are up.
It could be argued that comparing mainframe sales to that of a $5,000 Xeon server that will be obsolete in three years is not really fair. Mainframes are big investments, in the six- to seven-figure range, and are deployed for many years of use. You won't be ditching your mainframe in a relatively short period.
For that reason, the market for mainframes is much more cautious about its $500,000-plus investments. "Enterprise customers, who constitute about 80 percent of mainframe sales, keep a very close watch on what's coming down the pike," said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Research. "If they see something coming that's going to give them a significant performance boost, the mainframe segment is all about performance and they will hold off for a quarter or two."
He said it's not unusual for mainframe sales to slip in advance of a new release because people would rather buy the newer, faster model. And King said customers will get just that with the z10.
"The performance improvement in the new z10 is pretty breathtaking, 50 to 100 percent," he said. "We're talking about significant jumps in overall performance, in datacenter consolidation performance, in energy efficiency, in leveraging virtualization. This isn't about an incremental five to 10 percent performance boost that is more common in a next-generation Xeon. We're talking day and night performance boost."
Andi Mann, senior analyst with Enterprise Management Associates, also thinks the z10 will spark interest in Big Iron. "There are a lot of great reasons to hold off and wait for something like the z10. It's a platform for virtualization that's just hard to beat," he told InternetNews.com. "It doesn't run Windows, which is a kicker, but if you're running Linux, you can run literally thousands of independent Linux partitions vs. powering, cooling and maintaining thousands of servers. It's really a no-brainer."
IBM said the z10 can be partitioned into as many as 1,500 x86 servers, making it ideal for consolidation of the numerous small edge servers deployed in the past decade. Mann sees the potential to run all layers of a network, with edge servers to handle the public-facing part, MQ middleware and a large database on the back end, all on one physical box.
While IBM talks primarily Linux, Mann said there's also the zOS side, the mainframe's native operating system that still has plenty of potential use. "IBM is getting into universities to teach zOS and old style programming, PL/1 and COBOL, on the z Series," he said.
"There's a huge skills gap approaching with the retirement of baby boomers. zOS is still running mission critical systems for every bank, every insurance company, every manufacturer, logistics, and government. As those companies grow they do increase MIPS, and they are doing it on mainframes."
But that's just IBM selling to its existing customer base. King things the company needs to sell beyond that, which is its real challenge. "I would expect the type of company that would be interested in z Series would already be using the platform. I can't see them selling this into HP and Dell datacenters," he said.
Still, Mann said it's worth a look. "I think enterprises need to look at this if they are looking at virtualization in a large scale. This should be a primary consideration for them," he said.
This article was originally published on InternetNews.com.