IBM touts new mainframe as 'most powerful' business system yet

Sparing no superlatives, vendor also describes System z10 as a 'commercial supercomputer'

NEW YORK — IBM is calling its new System z10 mainframe a "commercial supercomputer" and hoping that the machine can capture some geek mind share via features such as a quad-core processor that runs at a clock speed 2.6 times faster than the chips in IBM's z9 model could manage.

The z10, which was announced today and displayed on the stage of a downtown hotel here, is sleek black in color and imperial in stature at a height of 80 inches and a maximum weight of 5,000-plus pounds.

And the system certainly has its ooh-and-ahh elements, including its 4.4-GHz quad-core processor. That compares with the 1.7-GHz single-core processor used in the three-year-old z9. The new system also supports up to 1.5TB of available memory per system and InfiniBand data rates of up to 6GB/sec., more than two times faster than on the z9.

According to IBM, the z10 is designed to run up to 50% faster than the z9 overall and can deliver as much as twice the performance of the existing model on CPU-intensive applications. "This is the world's most powerful enterprise computer," said Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive of IBM's software unit.

IBM officials took a shotgun approach in their characterizations of the z10, which also was described as a "universal server" at one point. But an issue for the mainframe line remains its upfront cost. The low-end z10 model starts at something less than $1 million, while a fully loaded model with 64 physical processors can cost in the multiple millions.

When IBM released the z9, a major emphasis for that system was security, encryption and other capabilities for maintaining data integrity. With the z10, a key component of IBM's economic justification for investing in new mainframes appears to be their ability to help IT managers solve a problem increasingly cited as a top data center concern: server sprawl, and the power and cooling issues it presents.

"We are about to hit a wall," said Rod Adkins, senior vice president of development and manufacturing in IBM's systems and technology group. "Companies will either have the opportunity to expand their data centers or innovate within an existing data center envelope."

IBM claims that the z10 can sweep a data center floor of hundreds of x86 servers if companies utilize its virtualized environment.

One z9 user, Buzz Woeckener, an IT manager at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.'s shared-services unit, said that he runs 484 virtualized servers on his mainframe. As a result, the unit has been able to delay until 2010 a planned data center expansion that initially was expected in 2006 or 2007. "It significantly pushed out that major investment," Woeckener said.

IBM said that the new quad-core processor was designed, in part, to make it easier to run nontraditional mainframe applications — namely, packaged software — on the z10. That expands on an ongoing effort to make the mainframe more adaptable to corporate processing needs through the use of so-called specialty engines — lower-cost dedicated processors for running Linux, Java and other types of workloads. The z10 "is capable of running a diverse workload," Mills said.

Brad Day, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said he thinks there's a pent-up demand for the new system, especially from users in the retail and financial services industries that need the additional capacity supported by the z10.

For existing users, said Richard Partridge, an analyst at IT research firm Ideas International, the performance jump offered by the z10 should be enough to "slow down anybody who was thinking of abandoning the mainframe because they thought it was too sluggish."

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