IBM keeps the mainframe alive

With a 5.5GHz, six-core processor, the zEnterprise EC12 is capable of handling analytics and hybrid cloud workloads.

IBM's latest mainframe, the zEnterprise EC12, was built with data analytics and hybrid clouds in mind.

And that's good, analysts say, because the company must focus on new applications like those to ensure that its workhorse data center technology remains relevant -- and continues to generate big profits -- at a time when CIOs can choose from a wide array of alternative technologies.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, said new IBM mainframes always include "an interesting mix of significant performance bumps [and] new features." Without new capabilities, he added, the technology would "get stuck as just a credit card and bank statement transaction platform."

With the zEnterprise EC12, IBM has taken its transaction model "and [adapted] it to different kinds of transactions," King said.

For instance, he noted that the new system is capable of meeting the computational requirements that come from, say, RFID-generated data and smart electricity meters.

David Wade, CIO of financial services firm Primerica, said he intends to upgrade to the EC12 from its predecessor, the zEnterprise 196, in a year to 18 months.

Primerica has installed 19 mainframes during Wade's 32 years at the company. The IT shop uses primarily IBM systems, including System p and Wintel computers.

Wade said Primerica is committed to the traditional mainframe platform. He said he knows of other organizations that have migrated away from mainframes only to return. He called such moves "a waste of time and money."

It's because of people like Wade that IBM continues building mainframes, despite competition from a growing number of highly capable alternatives -- including the company's own Unix- and IBM i-based Power systems.

Announced late last month, IBM's zEnterprise EC12 runs a new 5.5GHz, six-core processor. The zEnterprise 196, which was announced two years ago last month, featured a 5.2GHz, quad-core processor.

IBM says the new system offers 25% more performance per core than its predecessor, and some workloads will see performance gains of up to 45%.

The EC12 was produced at 32 nanometers, compared with 45nm for the previous model. The smaller size makes it possible to include more cache on the chip -- in this case, 33% more Level 2 cache.

The system also boasts twice as much L3 and L4 cache as the prior model, said Jeff Frey, CTO of the System z platform and an IBM Fellow.

Joe Clabby, an analyst at Clabby Analytics, said the increase in cache helps improve performance. The new system is "better at data-intensive workloads," he said. "The closer you can put the data to the processor, the faster it can be executed."

The EC12 has 3TB of system memory, about the same as the 196, but it also has flash memory with a maximum capacity of 6.4TB, and that improves system performance, Frey said.

Initially, the flash memory will be used internally for efficient paging of virtual memory, diagnostics and better handling of workloads, said Frey. Eventually, he added, IBM's DB2 database and Java will directly exploit the flash memory, providing "huge improvements" in the performance and scale of DB2, buffer pools and Java.

The zEnterprise EC12 was also adapted to a type of data center design that doesn't include raised floors. In what IBM says is a first for a mainframe, it has overhead power and cabling support.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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