IBM’s z13 and the case for the mainframe cloud

I was in New York last week for IBM’s z13 mainframe launch. If you heard about it in the news, you’ll know that the z13 offers the latest in IBM hardware innovation, along with notable boosts in transaction processing, security and analytics performance, making the new systems valuable for burgeoning mobile payment applications. IBM also positioned the z13 as a singular platform for cloud computing. Is that a justifiable or even compelling argument? (Note: Pund-IT has a consulting relationship with IBM.)

The mainframe path to the cloud

The z13 isn’t the first mainframe that IBM has promoted for cloud. In fact, the company has been actively pitching such solutions for over half a decade, starting in 2009 when Brazil-based Hoplon Infotainment began using an IBM z System “gameframe” (a mainframe bolstered with GPUs) to host online gaming services and communities.

However, the mainframe’s association with cloud began well before that. Cloud, after all, is simply the latest term for highly virtualized systems monitored and managed with mainly automated tools. IBM led the way to that destination in 1972 with its VM/370 system and these technologies have played a major role in the mainframe ecosystem ever since.

The mainframe is also central to IBM’s belief that public clouds should support multiple hardware platforms. Why so? Because it allows cloud infrastructures to adequately or wholly mirror customers’ private IT environments and thus fully achieve the vision of hybrid cloud. In fact, mainframes are used in the company’s managed cloud offerings, and are a notable part of the success IBM Cloud enjoys among large enterprise customers.

What makes the z13 cloud-ready?

Is the new z13 as firm a foundation for the cloud as IBM claims? Consider first what business customers want or need from the cloud. At one level, the cloud represents a successful implementation of the “utility” computing vision vendors and businesses have been espousing since the late 1990s. That is, a service that allows customers to turn on compute capacity like a light switch, and dial it up/down as they would water from a faucet.

Delivering “instant on” features and virtually unlimited scalability requires computing platforms to support remarkable Reliability, Availability and Serviceability (RAS) capabilities and business continuity. Plus, security is a big deal for enterprises, which is not surprising since 2014 was a banner year for business-focused hackers. Don’t forget openness – with the understandable exception of Microsoft’s Azure, virtually all of the world’s major clouds leverage Open Source OSs, software and tools. Lastly, organizations want the cloud to support both the processes they use today and the applications and use cases they expect will arise in future.

How does IBM’s z13 measure up?

  • According to IBM, a single z13 system can support as many as 8,000 virtual servers, and is significantly cheaper to operate than x86 and public cloud alternatives, making the z13 a capacious and cost-effective cloud by any measure.
  • In study after study, IBM mainframes deliver higher levels of RAS and business continuity than virtually any other hardware platform. The z13 should be no exception.
  • Mainframe security has long been world class which is why the vast majority of banks and other financial institutions buy and use IBM’s z Systems. The z13 builds on that with acceleration technologies that double encryption speed.
  • Enterprise-grade Linux and open technologies have long been key to IBM’s mainframe success story, representing over half of z System annual sales. With this launch, the company has added several updated cloud-centric features along with the new zKVM hypervisor and Cloud Manager with OpenStack v4.2, meaning that the z13 can be configured as an entirely open cloud environment.
  • Finally, at the launch IBM’s announced increased mainframe connectivity to Bluemix, a Cloud Foundry-based platform that can be used to easily and rapidly develop next generation mobile and web applications.

Final analysis

In many ways, cloud computing is a classic case of “what was old is new again.” When VMware first announced its vCloud initiative back in 2008, then-CEO Paul Maritz even described the company’s goal of uniformly managed, automated, data center-wide virtualization as “the big mainframe.” Since then, most every cloud vendor offered to deliver computing services and capabilities that have long been familiar to mainframe customers and users.

The new z13 certainly isn’t the first IBM mainframe to be “cloud ready,” but it offers numerous features that are crucial to the success of every cloud-bound service provider and business. I don’t expect every vendor or business to appreciate these points, but those who do will discover in IBM’s z13 robust capabilities and powerful benefits that will be difficult to find in many other cloud solutions.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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