IBM mainframes: Power to spare

IBM Corp. took the wraps off its next generation of mainframe computers May 13, including an innovative feature allowing for the "rental" of processing power.

The top-end model in the new IBM eServer zSeries 990 line will feature 32 processors, twice as many as what was available in the previous line, the z900. Improved chips in the z990 will allow it to offer almost three times the computing power as its predecessor, or up to 9,000 MIPS (million instructions per second).

The z990 also features up to four times the memory of the z900: 256G vs. 64G.

"One of the most important things about this announcement is the size of the new servers," said Mike Kahn, managing director of The Clipper Group Inc., a technology-acquisition consulting firm in Wellesley, Mass. "Those who run large workloads on their mainframes, like many in the government, like to be able to run more work on one machine, and this will allow them to do that."

The z990 features a number of other changes, including several types of performance improvements, an innovative on/off capacity on demand feature and a simplified product lineup. The performance enhancements in particular should be attractive to customers — many of them new to mainframes — who are using the servers as a consolidated platform to run multiple Linux-based applications, Kahn said.

"Most of IBM's recent growth in mainframe sales has been with Linux," he said. "[The z990's improved performance] is like a price cut per MIP for those Linux users."

In terms of packaging, the z990 family will have four models, the A08, B16, C24 and D32, with the number designation corresponding to the maximum number of processors.

It's with this new packaging and the on/off capacity on demand feature where IBM breaks some new ground in terms of how computing power is sold, Kahn said.

Take the example of a customer who wants to buy an A08, but at the time needs only four processors. IBM will ship the server with the full complement of eight processors, but will charge the customer for only four. If the customer has a special project and needs more horsepower than those first four processors can supply, he can power up the other four idle ones as needed, paying IBM a fee to "rent" the processors for 24-hour increments.

Other vendors have shipped products with built-in excess capacity that can be purchased outright and then activated by the customer later on (IBM offers this option as well), but this is the first time that extra capacity can be bought on a temporary, as-needed basis, Kahn said.

The z990 models A08 and B16 will be available next month, according to IBM. Models C24 and D32 will be available Oct. 31. The on/off capacity on demand functionality will be available in September.

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