Analysis: New IBM mainframe targets the bankers

IBM zEnterprise

In the banking and financial worlds, at least in the West, IBM is king of the hill. The vendor's mainframes have ruled these markets for almost as long as Queen Elizabeth II has ruled Britannia.

Like the Queen, IBM is not going to give up the throne easily. So the announcement of the company's latest mainframe -- the zEnterprise 196 is designed to keep Big Blue's subjects happy.

"Western civilisation runs on this system," Tom Rosamilia, IBM's general manager for System z, told a launch meeting with UK journalists this week.

Nobody laughed, and nor was there the deep intake of breath that such a boast normally elicits.

After all, HP and Sun Microsystems have been hammering away at IBM's loyal customer base for decades. They report making inroads from time to time, but Rosamilia dismisses these claims as marketing hype.

"The simple truth is that mainframes like the zEnterprise have got capabilities that the others don't have," he said.

The new machine has evolved following from feedback from IBM's customers. The previous z10 platform was a Frankenstein version of the zEnterprise. If you wanted blades close to the mainframe, they could be bolted on.

Now they are integrated with the mainframe in a closed Ethernet running at 10Gbits. It is secure and fast. The ability to fit 112 blades is impressive in itself but each can be virtualised, as can the mainframe, under a controller, the Unified Resource Manager (URM), which can handle up to 100,000 virtualised instances.

Having all of the power in a single enclosure offers cost benefits because, IBM claims, the blades inherit the self-maintenance that has been a feature of Series z.

At the implementation and physical maintenance level, all of the systems specialists can work in concert and close proximity, saving on the time and money involved in managing a geographically distributed network of systems.

But despite the sexy, fast car feel of the zEnterprise, there is still a fusty smell of the gentlemen's club about the mainframe market.

Even so, this machine has relevance beyond the hardcore customer base. Its reliability, security and flexibility lend themselves to the emerging cloud market as a multi-tenanted, application server.

At the launch meeting, the IBM team did indeed make passing references to new markets.

They variously described the zEnterprise as a data centre in a box, even as a cloud in a box. The ability to run complete applications with security appliances, predictive analytics, Web interfaces and a host of other ancillary services on board has definite attractions and possibilities.

Despite this it is clear that the marketing team's first priority is to upgrade the bankers.

This is the IBM core business, after all. But there was also a hint that the zEnterprise is the first of a series of machines.

Analyst Gary Barnett, partner and CTO at The Bathwick Group, commented: "This will certainly put the mainframe back at the heart of IT but it wouldn't surprise me if, in a year or so, we see a business class version of the zEnterprise - a lower entry-point version."