IBM goes big on new mainframe with fastest chip, flash memory

zEnterprise EC12 aims to deliver on analytics, hybrid cloud demands with fastest commercially available processor, Flash Express

IBM's latest mainframe, the zEnterprise EC12, is big on data analytics and hybrid clouds.

This system, announced Tuesday, includes a new 5.5-GHz, six-core processor, versus the 5.2-GHz, quad-core processor that shipped with the zEnterprise 196, announced two years ago last month.

This may be the world's fastest commercial processor, say analysts. Despite this, it is not as big a jump in sheer clock rate as some of the earlier leaps in mainframe CPU speed.

Regardless, IBM says this system has 25% more performance per core and some workloads will see performance gains by as much as 45%.

The trend among system and chip makers has been to add cores and turn to software parallelism to improve performance. But Jeff Frey, the CTO of the System Z platform and an IBM Fellow, says they aren't trading off single-thread performance in the mainframe.

"We continue to press on single-thread performance," said Frey, who added that it remains important for customers who have applications that execute processes serially, such as batch applications.

This latest chip was produced at 32 nanometers, versus 45 nanometers in the earlier system. This smaller size allows more cache on the chip, in this case 33% more Level-2 cache. The system has doubled the L3 and L4 cache over the prior generation, said Frey. The system can support as many as 120 cores.

Joe Clabby of Clabby Analytics, who was briefed by IBM on the new system, said the increase in cache is particularly important for improving performance. "It's now gotten better at data intensive workloads," said Clabby. "The closer you can put the data to the processor, the faster it can be executed."

The zEC12 has 3TB of system memory, similar to z196, but also adds flash memory called Flash Express, with a maximum capacity of 6.4 TB, to improve system performance. The memory is easily configurable and protected with 128-bit encryption, said Frey.

Initially, the flash memory will be used internally for efficient paging of virtual memory, diagnostics and better performance of workloads, said Frey.

But he said that in the future, DB2 and Java will have direct exploitation of the flash memory, providing "huge improvements" in performance and scale of DB2, buffer pools and Java.

There's no timeframe for that capability, but once DB2 and Java are allowed to use flash memory directly, "you'll be able to have DB2 exploit very large in-memory databases with extremely good performance," Frey said.

Overall, IBM said the new mainframe is delivering as much as a 45% improvement for multithreaded Java workloads, 35% in compute intensive, C and C++ based applications, and as much as 30% for transaction and transactional DB2 and relational analytical applications, as well as SAP workloads.

The zEC12 was also adapted to a type of data center design that eliminates the raised floor. It has overhead power and cabling support. IBM says that is a first for the mainframe.

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

Wade has installed 19 mainframes in 32 years at Primerica, where he began as a production control technician. Their IT shop is primarily IBM, including its P Systems and Wintel platforms.

The company's database software is also IBM. Wade said they installed version one of DB2 in 1984 and are now on version 10.

Wade is proponent of continuous upgrades. He says some IT managers will add processors to gain performance but he believes you need to upgrade to latest version to get real gains. When his company installed their z196, "we took four hour off our batch cycle at night," Wade said.

He is committed to the IBM platform and says he has seen some of his peers migrate off mainframes only to return. Leaving the mainframe is "just a waste of time and money," Wade said.

It's because of people such as Wade that IBM has continued with the system, despite the increasing capabilities of alternative systems, including its own Power systems.

In every generational revision of the mainframe, "you always see an interesting mix of significant performance bumps mixed in with new features to support emerging workloads, and that's been a hallmark of IBM's mainframe strategy," said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT who was also briefed on the new system.

King said it's important for IBM to adapt these systems to new workloads, such as analytics, "so it doesn't get stuck as just a credit card and bank statement transaction platform."

The mainframe can meet computational requirements that come from, for instance, RFID-generated data to smart electrical meters. IBM has taken a transaction model "and then adapts it to different kinds of transactions," said King.

Read more about mainframes in Computerworld's Mainframes Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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