IBM launches z15 mainframe, aims to automate compliance via Data Privacy Passports

IBM's z15 mainframe, which was influenced by a design thinking process with customers, should kick off another hardware upgrade cycle for IBM.

IBM's mainframe: A long-evolving system IBM's launch of the IBM Z promises to encrypt data all the time throughout multiple systems, and the rebranding of mainframe to simply IBM Z is just the latest transformation of the brand, which can handle 12 billion transactions a day. Here's a quick look at IBM's mainframe history.

IBM launched its z15 mainframe with an eye toward server consolidation, hybrid cloud applications and processing billions of transactions a day and a heavy dose of design thinking.

The z15 is the second mainframe cycle that utilized design thinking, which revolves around courting customer input, being empathic about customers and improving products. The first effort was the IBM Z, a mainframe with a smaller footprint, in 2017.

That smaller footprint -- a 19-inch rack in the Z14 instead of the 24-inch chassis previously -- is now the standard. One-to-four mainframes make up one system and the smaller footprint means the average customer saves 50% of floor space and 10% on electricity compared to older version.

While mainframes are seen as old fashioned by many in the tech industry, large enterprises rely on them to process transactions. Meanwhile, some industries are looking to mainframes to cut data center space and energy usage in areas such as China. A mainframe system can run from $250,000 to a fully configured cluster closer to $4 million to $5 million. Each z mainframe system is built to order and custom.

Also: IBM z15: Multicloud makes the case for why mainframes still matter TechRepublic

Mainframes are also critical to the success of IBM's hardware unit, which shows strong gains early in a mainframe cycle. With the acquisition of Red Hat, IBM's z15 and zOS operating system will be able to work with OpenShift as well as Kubernetes containers. "By putting OpenShift on the platform it's a statement of direction. The strategy is to put OpenShift on all key IBM platforms," said Ross Mauri, general manager of IBM's mainframe unit.

Via application programming interfaces, IBM's z mainframe lineup will be able to connect to public and private clouds and tap a broader range of developers. IBM has been honing its mainframe API strategy for years, but now is starting to see traction among developers from the cloud and on-premise camps. The win for developers is that they can "get to data that they couldn't before," said Mauri, who said the z systems are building a base of deep learning, artificial intelligence and analytics workloads.

"Our clients do transactional processing and increasingly want to do analytics during the transaction without a performance hit," said Mauri. Blockchain and crypto currency are also budding markets for mainframes, he added. "I've talked to more startups in the last year than the previous 39," said Mauri.

However, IBM's mainframes today still cater to banks, insurers, transportation, financial services, and government. IBM said the z15 can execute up to 1 trillion web transactions today on one z15 server.

Here's how the z15 stacks up to the z14.

z15-vs-z14.png

IBM

Also: IBM launches IBM Z, a revamped mainframe with pervasive data encryption | IBM launches 'skinny' Z mainframe designed for 19-inch standard data center rack  

Perhaps the biggest new feature for the Z15 is called Data Privacy Passports. This technology, which builds on the encryption added to the z14, means that any data created on the z15 will have encryption and protections as it moves to the public cloud or a third party. Only the originator of the data has key and those keys can be tracked, explained Mauri.

Ultimately, the z15 aims to deploy encryption everywhere via the Data Privacy Passports. The primary return on investment case is that Data Privacy Passports and encryption as data moves can thwart data breaches, which often start with partners and third parties.

Why is that important? Data privacy regulations. With data privacy passports, IBM is aiming to simplify compliance while extending the reach of it. The feature was a big part of a three-year cycle to design the Z15 and one of the top requests from customers, said Mauri.

"Automated compliance makes IT directors happy because compliance takes man hours. If everything is automated it makes life happier for IT and regulators," said Mauri. "No one is immune to privacy regulation.

IBM also added tools so customers can plan better for planned downtime and recover faster from unplanned downtime. The instant recovery feature utilizes dark cores and capacity to bring systems back in half the time. IBM z15 has 12% more cores than the z14 and 25% more memory.

Mauri said that instant recovery and smoothing out planned downtime was the No. 2 highest request from customers.

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Design thinking

The design process of the mainframe typically takes two to three years and sometimes longer. Mauri is already thinking through the z16 and z17 with IBM Research and garnering customer feedback.

The design of the z15 included collaboration with more than 100 companies and more than 3,000 patents issued or in process.

"We absorbed a lot of feedback in our design thinking process that started three years ago. We have to focus on what mattered to clients," said Mauri.

Shani Sandy, design executive at IBM, joined the company in November with the aim to incorporate design thinking into the company's products, problem-solving, and customer feedback loops. IBM's spin on design thinking is that it a) has to help user outcomes; b) includes a multiple discipline team; and c) aims for continuous improvement.

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Sandy said the z systems present a design thinking challenge in that the product cycles are long. Sandy noted that IBM has design councils where the company gathers clients to find their pain points and how executives hope to tackle them. "After four days, executives are able to say these are our challenges, here are the issues and here are some solutions," said Sandy. She added that those 10 or so challenges guide product designs.

From those high-level gatherings, IBM creates incubator projects to focus on specific issues. And then there are potential prototypes, user experiences and surveys to hone product designs, said Sandy.

Part of that design thinking process went beyond hardware, speeds and feeds to focus on pricing plans too, explained Mauri. IBM in May moved to a system called tailored fit pricing for the software on the z systems. Today, pricing is based on consumption compared to a monthly licensed charge over a four to five-year term. The new pricing scheme is more transparent for customers, which need to plan for capacity and costs.

In any case, the z16 design thinking process is already underway. "We already have teams up and running," said Sandy.

Features and specs

Among the key performance benchmarks, IBM outlined the following comparisons between z15 and z14:

  • 14% more performance per core;
  • 25% more system capacity and memory;
  • 2x faster cryptography;
  • 19 billion encrypted transactions a day for mission-critical workloads;
  • 2.4 million Docker containers on a single system;
  • Seven 9s of availability, or 3 seconds of downtime a year;
  • 50% CPU reduction for COBOL.