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IBM's New Mainframe Takes On The Cloud

Mainframes were supposed to go the way of the dinosaur, but IBM's zBC12 seeks to capitalize on growing demand for private clouds.

IBM unleashed its latest mainframe for the masses, the zBC12, last month. The new mainframe builds on IBM's strategy of providing the technologies companies need to build their own clouds.

A sleek beast that IBM says offers a faster 4.2-GHz processor and double the available memory of its two-year-old predecessor, the z114, the zBC12 starts at the same price as the z114: $75,000. For some perspective, IBM's z990, aka the "T-Rex," started at $1 million when it came out in 2003.

Despite that price difference, mainframes figure to be an IBM staple for the foreseeable future.

"There's really too much at stake for IBM to let the mainframe die," says John Abbott, distinguished analyst at 451 Research, in an email interview. "It's still at the core of IBM's most profitable business, and still runs the most challenging enterprise workloads at the world's largest companies."

In fact, Abbott says, not only will zBC12's low price draw new customers, but IBM's previous moves to lower prices on mainframe software and maintenance motivated companies running older IBM mainframes to invest in updating those systems.

Still, it's hard not to notice the changes in how mainframes are marketed. A decade ago, the T-Rex was sold as a monster designed to run complex and transaction-intensive systems with minimal interruption. Today, "mainframes are enduring because they enable clients to consolidate computing into single machines," Patrick Toole, GM of IBM's z series, told the New York Times' Quentin Hardy. Hardy's analysis of that comment is spot-on: "'We're more tidy' didn't used to be a sales point."

But today, with IT executives struggling to connect ever-expanding arrays of applications and workloads, tidiness is very much a sales point. And with its ability to consolidate as many as 520 virtual servers in just 10 square feet, the zBC12 is most definitely tidy.

Abbott said the most likely buyers of the zBC12 would be IBM's existing mainframe customer base, which numbers about 10,000 worldwide. But the zBC12 could prove attractive to new customers because of a few new features, including its ability to run Linux instead of a mainframe operating system. By enabling the zBC12 to serve as an alternative to swaths of commodity servers, IBM appears to be targeting one of the biggest competitive threats it's faced in recent years.

"That possibility opens up the mainframe as a large-scale consolidation platform for cloud, essentially a centralized processing hub with closely integrated storage and networking," says Abbott.

[Recent surveys show that companies are looking to private and hybrid clouds to address security and application suitability issues. Get the details in Private, Hybrid Cloud Internet Spurred by Security And Control."]

Abbott notes that his research shows the cloud market expanding at a 36% compound annual growth rate, reaching $20 billion by 2016. But he adds that public cloud adoption remains hampered by security concerns, transparency and trust issues, perceived lack of workload readiness, and even non-IT organizational tension.

For those reasons, "enterprises looking to host their own cloud-like services internally for mission critical applications are looking at hardware platforms efficient at pooling resources," says Abbott. "In some cases, the mainframe fits the bill for this scenario."

That said, there are potential risks in companies committing to mainframes. Abbott points out that skilled mainframe administrators are increasingly difficult to find, and mainframe crashes loom as possibilities.

"If systems aren't carefully maintained," says Abbott, "they can become unreliable."

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