IBM unmuzzles low-end 'Raptor' mainframe

The mainframe 'lite' runs a stripped-down operating system and can only use newer software
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

IBM's latest mainframe is available with the option of a cut-down operating system that only runs newer software, and does not run traditional mainframe software such as CICS transaction processing. This gives IBM a cheaper mainframe to sell to new business, without having to cut the price it charges legacy customers.

Raptor, the newest model in IBM's old-guard mainframe line, lets IBM offer a much cheaper version for users that do not require traditional IBM mainframe software such as CICS transaction processing and COBOL.

The new z800 gives IBM the chance to offer mainframe "lite". Users can buy it with the z/OS (formerly System 390) operating system, or with z/OS.e an entry-level version that costs only one-tenth the price of the full version, and only runs newer programs such as Internet software, Siebel Systems' customer tracking software, or SAP's accounting and inventory software.

Customers can also buy the x800 with Linux -- this is the "Linux-only mainframe" launched last month.

The introduction of z/OS.e move is clearly designed to give IBM salespeople a mainframe with a price closer to those of volume servers, while preserving an important revenue stream by preventing customers who still run legacy CICS applications from suddenly moving to a cheaper platform. "It protects our software revenues," said Doug Neilson, IBM eServer zSeries consultant.

Users of z/OS.e may be existing mainframe users wanting to consolidate their newer software onto a cheaper platform, or customers new to mainframes who want to put applications onto a reliable platform, he said.

The system is the second with IBM's 64-bit mainframe CPU; the first was the z900, launched in October 2000. The z/OS.e version, with its lower price and forward-looking software capability, is the tip of the spear in IBM's continuing efforts to woo new buyers.

With 1300 z900 mainframes sold since launch, the mainframe market is far from dead, said Nielson.

"Most customers will run both Linux and one or other version of z/OS," said Neilson. It is too early to say how many will take the lite version of z/OS though, he said: "We hope to see a lot of business. By definition it is for new business workloads."

IBM mainframes typically bring years of revenue from maintenance and software licence agreements -- just the type of recurring revenue that helped carry the company through the current economic downturn comparatively unscathed.

Running Linux and other newer software has helped recharge IBM's mainframe business, the company and analysts say. Because of the new software, 2001 was "the first time in 13 years that mainframe revenues grew at all," Bill Zeitler, head of IBM's four server groups, said in an earlier interview.

IBM hopes to expand the mainframe customer base with the new machine.

The new system, with a starting price of £262,500 ($375,000) -- including three years of maintenance from IBM -- may not sound cheap, but the cost is substantially lower than that of full-featured models.

If customers want, they can pay for upgrades that will elevate the z800 to a lower-end z900. The z800 won't go all the way, however, because it tops out at four CPUs, while the z900 can accommodate 16 CPUs.

An upgrade path that leads this high is a novelty for IBM. "Unlike other entrees in the past into the middle market, which were not quite the same as the flagship mainframe of its time, the z800 truly is a baby z900," Lechner said.

The Raptor code name is intended to sting Sun, which has derided mainframes as "dinosaurs". IBM has the lion's share of the mainframe market, especially as most plug-compatible vendors (such as Amdahl) have left the business.

"After Sun started running nasty dinosaur ads, we changed all the code names for our mainframe servers to be meat-eating dinosaurs," Zeitler said in a speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo recently.

While Sun, is edging closer to mainframe capabilities with its higher-end Unix servers, IBM is running a scheme called eLiza, to add mainframe-like features to its other servers, at the same time as pushing the ability to run Linux alongside its more traditional operating systems.

The Linux-only version of the z800 was apparently an afterthought. "Raptor was born before we had the notion of having a Linux-only model," said Lechner. "Then, with the success we saw in the marketplace last year in Linux, that's why we introduced the Linux-only model."

The z800s will go on sale worldwide on 29 March, he said.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

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