IBM System z, legacy or useful tool?

IBM System z, legacy or useful tool?

Summary: Kusnetzky Group clients often speak to us about their need for scalability, reliability, management, and security. They also report the challenges they face when considering cloud computing, the use of Big Data and analytics to better understand their customers' needs and how to safely and effectively support both their own staff and customers using today's smartphones and tablets. IBM says System z is up to the challenge

TOPICS: Data Centers

Note: Updated on Friday, 8-Nov-2013

I recently had the opportunity to review an informative recent IBM System z update. It is really interesting how IBM has been able to refresh, rejuvenate and extend a 50 year old system architecture allowing it to directly address today's requirements.

What IBM had to say about the growth in Mainframe use

Although System z is a direct decedent of  the time honored IBM 360 family of computers, it is supporting an increasing number of customer workloads.

IBM's way of presenting this growth, unfortunately, tends to obscure that growth. Rather than leading with the number of net-new systems or customer installations, they typically lead with the growth in System z MIPS (Million Instructions Per Second). IBM is proud to point out that the number of System z MIPS in use is 56% higher than this time last year.

Correction: My contacts at IBM pointed out that I had misunderstood the presentation. Shipped MIPS grew 56% not installed MIPS.

The next metric IBM speaks about is more telling of the company's success. IBM has captured 230+ net-new customers in the three years since the third quarter of 2010. My question about this statistic is why did the company present growth in a 3 year window of time rather than an annual growth rate.

Update: My contacts at IBM explained their approach to announcing the growth in new customers by saying this: "our approach for the past three years has been to provide cumulative numbers since the launch of IBM zEnterprise in 3Q10.  We added 71 new clients in 2012 and are on pace to equal or surpass that number this year.  Hence, the 230+ is from 3Q10 forward."

IBM speaks about Mainframes that include both System z and some other processing architecture (IBM's Power architecture, called System p, and IBM's X86-based systems, called System x) as "hybrid computing units." This approach has allowed IBM to place more workloads under the Mainframe's strong management and security. IBM reported 290+ net-new hybrid system installations in the three years since the third quarter of 2010.

Update:  My contacts at IBM also explained their approach to presenting the growth of their hybrid systems by saying this: "We use the three-year window because that's when the zBX was introduced, as a key element of the zEnterprise announcement.  The cumulative 290+ hybrid computing units number includes both zBX and IBM DB2 Analytics Accelerator.  I recall Greg said >200 zBX and >80 IDAA in his remarks yesterday."

The next statistic that IBM presents is that 80+ percent of its top 100 clients have installed IFLs (Integrated Facility for Linux), which is IBM's rather quaint way of describing Linux on their Mainframes. This, to me, indicates companies consolidating their Linux-based workloads on a single Mainframe as a way to reduce their costs for monitoring systems, managing systems and doing capacity planning while also increasing levels of reliability, availability and security.

The company also presented interesting statistics about the success of a program designed to increase student interest in learning about System z and the increasing number of ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) offering products and services on System z.

Update:  My IBM contacts also offered more detail about the the growth in Mainframe applications by saying this: "of the 7,400+ ISV applications that run on System z, the breakdown is about 60% z/OS apps and about 40% Linux apps."

All-in-all, it appears that the Mainframe not only isn't dead, it is thriving in today's world of cloud computing, mobile applications and Big Data.

New Hardware and Software

IBM also discussed a new system, the IBM zEnterprise BC12 (zBC12), and new operating system releases for both z/OS® and z/VM®. The company also described three new industry solution offerings designed to support cloud computing; Big Data and analytics; mobile computing; and security.

Snapshot Analysis 

Kusnetzky Group clients often speak to us about their need for scalability, reliability, management, and security. They also report the challenges they face when considering cloud computing, the use of Big Data and analytics to better understand their customers' needs and how to safely and effectively support both their own staff and customers using today's smartphones and tablets.

It appears to us that at least part of the challenges they face can be attributed to relying on highly complex distributed workload architectures, proprietary development tools and system platforms. Often these choices appear to have been made based upon the initial cost of the systems, software, development tools, database software, storage solutions, network solutions and management software rather than considering the actual long-term operational costs. We suggest that the best place to start their decision tree is with a thorough understanding of what they're trying to accomplish before trying to select the best tools, application frameworks, database software, operating systems and hardware.

We have to ask why these clients haven't considered other, better integrated solutions based upon Mainframe or Midrange system technology. That choice, we suggest, would, in all likelihood, result in a reduction of administrative, operations, and facilities costs.

It appears that often client IT decision-makers have been swayed by IBM's competitors castigating mainframes as "legacy solutions," solutions that should be replaced by modern technology.

As an aside, the word "Legacy" isn't really a negative. It actually refers to established, time tested solutions that are currently supporting large and midsize companies the world over. Competitors often cast IBM's clear strengths as a weakness even though IBM's 50 years of success with this architecture is a testament to the company's ability to adopt new technology when and where appropriate. This new technology is deployed in an evolutionary way to reduce disruption of the critical systems supporting its customers' businesses.

It was an interesting session that gave us much to consider.

Topic: Data Centers


Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. In his spare time, he's also the managing partner of Lux Sonus LLC, an investment firm.

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  • zSmoke andz zMirrors

    The cost model for running anything other than native mainframe apps on a mainframe is not justifiable. Getting off a mainframe is tough not for an individual app but because so many are tied together however if you can do it there are much cheaper alternatives. IBM would always love for you to pick their highest margin biggest lockin platform, z mainframe.
    • It is actually cheaper than a warehouse of Microsoft servers

      LOTS cheaper.

      And it is most of the Microsoft sales people that list mainframes as "legacy", and imply it is out-of-date tech.

      When Microsoft can offer 5 9s uptime per year (which requires a server to only be down for about 5 minutes) call back. One z server can handle the equivalent of several hundred to several thousand Windows servers.

      Windows uptime is a joke.
      • Lots of Sour Grapes

        I hope the wine tastes good!
        • he will need some cheese to go with that

  • Question...

    Do the clouds operated by Amazon, Microsoft and Google leverage mainframes? If the costs are compelling and ILF is good stuff, are they at least using them for their Linux work loads? If not, why not?

    What about IBM's own cloud? Are they eating their own dog food?

    I just went to IBM's cloud computing web page. Lots of Linux versions and Windows. No AS400, no MVS or VM. Why? Did IBM build it's own cloud on x86?
    • What about IBM's own cloud?

      Here are two examples how IBM is using Linux on System z (mainframe) for cloud implementations:
      - Harnessing IBM Business Analytics and data warehousing on System z technologies to drive multi-million dollar benefits (
      - Building innovative employee digital experience on the classic strengths of the mainframe (
      Jerry Hosch
  • MIPs growth

    My understanding is that MIPs growth on System z is more like 17-20% in each of the last 15 years, and its a little higher these last 2 years. These are the MIPs in use - available for software. The 56% makes sense in the context of buying more MIPs every 2-2.5 years. Cool that you can buy MIPs, and simply turn them on when needed.
    Steve Mink