Sunday, January 25, 2015

Is the Buzz Surrounding IBM's System z13 Mainframe Just Hype?

by Brenda J. Christie with Eloy Cruz-Bizet

IBM System z13

I had the opportunity to solicit some feedback from Eloy Cruz-Bizet on his take on the new IBM System z13 mainframe.  Mr. Cruz-Bizet is a veteran z/OS System Programmer who, as a young prodigy worked at IBM on some of its earliest 360 mainframes.  His tenure in mainframe computing subsequent to IBM includes stints at such prestigious organizations as Mount Sinai, Merrill Lynch and GHI where he served as Director of Technical Services.  Mr. Cruz-Bizet is unquestionably, one of the most knowledgeable experts in the field of mainframe computing.  It is for this reason, that I asked for his system programmer's perspective on the hype versus the reality. I wanted to know do all of the z13 features add up to a power house or are they just another instance of marketing at its best.  What's under the hood?

I had not spoken with Mr. Cruz-Bizet about the z13 prior to its launch, but not surprisingly, when the subject was broached, he expressed a similar reserve, such as the one I expressed in my January 18, 2015 post, 15 Reasons the z13 Just Might Succeed.  Here's what he had to say:

Search for the Killer Mainframe Box

"IBM’s evolution of mainframe technology is no doubt preceded by a massive research effort into the requisite needs of its customer base of large demand users.  How successful IBM has been in the past to turn this research into product has depended on their understanding of current and hidden demand for processing power. The release of the IBM z13 will be no different.  The current challenge in the computing arena is the proliferation of massive warehouses of unstructured data from the smartphone, tablet, and mobile apps’ 24-hour per day generation of huge amounts of demographic and usage data.  The Holy “data” Grail has become the search for the killer mainframe app or killer mainframe Box that will reduce this plethora of raw, useless data, into actionable information pointed to improve the bottom line.

Companies are still seeking to find a method of paying for, or monetizing the “free app” model.   Many believe the payback is in the value of the data being collected by the mobile applications.
Whether this data can be put to any good use is anyone’s guess.  It is un-standardized, random, chaotic and plentiful, nonetheless, everyone wants to collect it, parse it, store it, analyses it and use it for making more money. The z13 is IBM's first new mainframe in almost three years, and it exhibits the corporation’s continuing investment in the mainframe product line relied on critically by large banks, airlines, finance firms, credit card processors, manufacturing and other big firms, while showing steadily declining sales year over year.

Sleek and Fast

The z13 sports a new central processor design, meant to back up a faster I/O channel, that also ports significantly increased bandwidth, and the ability to address up to 10TB of memory in the largest of the 5 model processors announced. This capacity is nearly three times as much as any of its predecessors in the z12 line.

Model Number of CPC Drawers Client Memory (GB)
N30 1 256 GB to 2560 GB
N63 2 512 GB to 5120 GB
N96 3 768 GB to 7669 GB
NC9 4 1024 GB to 10,000 GB (10 TB)
NE1 4 1024 GB to 10 TB

In its largest configuration, it can configure up to 141 processor units in a single system about the size of 2 refrigerators side-by-side that IBM calls, “The most sophisticated computer ever built.” Well they should know. Unfortunately that may not be as huge an improvement for those firms whose personnel have properly tuned their IBM z12’s or previous mainframe system’s performance already. The resulting system claims to be able to run as many as “8,000 virtual servers” (of some arbitrary size?) and can carry out “2.5 billion transactions a day”, (whatever a transaction is, the press hype remains rather vague) somehow delivering a 30% performance increase in carrying out some computing jobs. Yet, it is not clear what changes to code or procedure may be required to achieve this full benefit. C/C++ users are in for a challenge. IBM z13 systems include many new capabilities, most significant is the integration of encryption capabilities in its Cryptographic processor unit available on every core.  The ability to have channel virtualization is going to increase the flexibility of adjusting (tweaking) 120Gps Infiniband I/O bandwidth, especially favorable in systems exploiting z/VM, z/TPF Transaction Processing Facility, and the CICS Cloud Server.

Seeking to expand the exceptance and implementation of encrypted data and applications that can handle them, IBM hopes to make this adoption more economically viable by making crypto services an enabled, no-charge feature on the z13 mainframe.  Though up-front costs are unfortunately, a deterrent to adoption of cryptography, some companies find it required too much up-front work, for an elusive benefit.  Many of us in the industry believe companies such as these will continue to believe cryptography is for those "other companies" until they fall victim to some variation of the much publicized data breaches of 2014 which have shown that the "emperor has no clothes."  The "penny-foolishness" of avoiding encrypting sensitive data will quickly become obvious.

z13 A Harbinger of Things to Come?

If IBM has correctly estimated the hidden demand for extra computing power for the mobile market data explosion, the z13 roll-out promises to be a successful offering. Somehow, I doubt it, and expect that IBM will roll out a newer machine as soon as they recoup some of their 1 billion cash investment in the technology and gain manufacturing economies of scale.  This future "super box z14 or z15" will kick ass, as Apple, Inc. enlightens IBM as to the "real" purpose of collecting every iota of data, every single person with a phone or tablet will generate.

z13 Mainframe

The z13's physical appearance, the familiar black carbon-fiber colored geometric panels, presents a dominating and fearsome pall.  Certainly not as scary as seeing an IBM 3495 robot tape system plucking arm flying towards you, but it is also not your granddad’s  3090 in blue or red. It is important to keep in mind that just because the “Beast in the Box” claims certain performance characteristics, that for sure, your “performance will vary” with the choice of operating system, hardware, and channel configuration, workload mix, online transaction rates, and desire to recompile or relink to gain access to newer features.  IBM should be able to provide your firm with modeling data based on available historical log data.   These boxes will not be installed as single systems in one location. Companies will be replacing clusters of z12 and older devices to catch up with the inventory of hidden demand, and to cash in on the 30% promised performance boost.  The question is whether that boost in IBM hardware capability is enough to handle what the Gartner group estimates is a 40%-60% growth in data accumulation.  As networked clusters of several z13 machines, some operating towards a single function, others operating as separate testing servers, production servers, and CICS/DB2 transaction processors, the capacity/performance-on-demand, and hardware virtualization features are sure to be a favorite feature to those companies with highly dynamic workloads."


There certainly seems to be much to consider in opening up the hood of the z13.  By all accounts, it does seem to be an interim solution or a prelude to a much, newer machine in the not too far off distance - a machine which will undoubtedly encompass feedback from the early adopters like Citigroup.  Short of that roll-out we will see if the appetite for the new z13 mainframe exists in IBM's quarterly reports later this year and early next.

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Bye for now,

Brenda J. Christie