IBM’s latest mainframe adopts multiple personalities

The zEnterprise 196, IBM’s latest mainframe, was unveiled today. At the London launch, Tom Rosamilia, worldwide general manager for IBM’s System z, was eager to point out that this iteration puts IBM back at the head of the game. “Our mainframe has capabilities that the others don’t have. Western civilisation runs on this system,” he said.

It may sound boastful but, certainly, many banks and financial institutions rely on System z to run their back-end CICS (Customer Information Control System) application.  The Digital Generation look at mainframes in much the same way as biologists view the Tyrannosaurus Rex. IBM is trying to change this view with this release, a hybrid mainframe that combines a zSeries server with a large array of blade servers. This gives the back end mainframe its own front-end servers in a single package.

The mainframe is impressive in itself. With up to 3TB memory and a stack of 5.3GHz processors, the zEnterprise can execute an impressive 50 billion instructions per second. The CISC chips also have 100 new instructions to improve Java performance and to increase COBOL compilation by up to 50% compared with the last generation of z10 mainframes.

The ability to include a large tract of memory allows IBM to improve the reliability of the system. The data storage system uses a striping algorithm similar to that used in RAID disk arrays, which is why IBM is coining the acronym RAIM to describe it. This means that data can be recovered if a memory chip fails.

On the other side of the cabinet, there is the blade section. This can hold up to four chassis containing 112 blades in all. Initially, these will be IBM’s latest Power7 blades but SystemX blades will be added later.

The blades have to be IBM, because the whole system has to be validated to ensure that the mission critical applications that run on them do not misbehave.

Producing a hybrid system means that the mainframe can run a large database while the blades run applications such as XML processing, predictive analytics or even Web servers. A spin-off of this is that it is easier to manage because the servers are all in one place and the compactness of the system reduces floor space requirements by half. With server sprawl becoming an issue in data centres IBM feels that this could be a good additional selling point.

The main advantage of having blades and the mainframe in a single housing is that they are connected by a dedicated 10Gbit Ethernet which means there is less contention for network bandwidth and the system is more secure. The speed benefits and resilience of the system are self-evident.

The whole box is controlled by a Universal Resource Manager (URM) which can monitor up to 100,000 virtualised server instances. The URM also watches over the hardware to ensure that all is well. If a component fails or  looks like it is failing, the URN will notify the systems manager or an IBM engineer and can even order replacement parts.

The zEnterprise 196 will be available in September, Rosamilia said, but he was not able to talk pricing which is likely to be a complex choice of configurations and applications.