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IBM chills mainframe New Coke

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IBM today is taking the wraps off a new line of entry-level mainframes, the System z10 Business Class server. The z10 BC is a cut-down version of the existing z10 Enterprise Class machine, which launched in March 2008 using Big Blue's quad-core z6 CISC mainframe processor.

It has been a long time since most IT people have thought about IBM as a maker of mainframes, but the company still gets a considerably large portion of its hardware, software, and services sales from mainframes. In fact, some estimates put this as high as half of its sales.

That is why having entry mainframes - while possibly boring to Unix, Linux, and Windows enthusiasts - still matters to Big Blue and the companies that pay what can honestly be called exorbitant amounts of money for mainframes large and small.

The quad-core z6 processor announced with the System z10 server back in March ran at a top speed of 4.4 GHz and was rated at 920 MIPS per core, delivering about 60 per cent more oomph than the dual-core 1.7 GHz CISC processors used in IBM's System z9 machines. Each core on the z6 chip has 64 KB of L1 instruction cache and 128 KB of L1 data cache, plus 3 MB of L2 cache.

The CISC chips used in the prior-generation System z9 mainframes - including the existing System z9 BC machines that are being upgraded today and also System z9 EC machines - had a lot less cache memory, which crimped performance on many workloads. The z6 chip - which should have been called the z10 processor if IBM wanted to make sense but was called the z6 to match the nomenclature of the Power6 chip with which it shares many elements - has data compression and cryptographic functions built on the chip and includes the decimal floating point units that made their debut in the Power6 RISC processors in the summer of 2007 in the System p and System i lines. The p and i lines have subsequently been merged to create a unified Power Systems line.

With the System z10 EC launched in March, IBM delivered five high-end machines that spanned as many as 54 cores and an aggregate 30,000 MIPS of processing power. The System z10 BC is aimed at more modest workloads, particularly companies with modest z/OS-COBOL workloads that want to run Linux or, in an increasing number of cases, companies that are deploying just Linux on a mainframe to do x64 server consolidation. (It may not happen a lot in terms of footprints - and you may laugh - but Big Blue is laughing all the way to the bank on the relatively small number of customers who are deciding to deploy Linux on mainframes and don't really care about MVS-OS/390-z/OS).

This is a distinction, says Dave Gelardi, vice president of worldwide client centers for IBM's Systems and Technology Group, that IBMers refers to internally as Classic Mainframe and New Mainframe. Only this time, the New Coke is selling better than the vendor expected - and this is thanks in large measure to Linux and the specialty engines that IBM sells to accelerate Java programs (zAAPs) or DB2 database routines (zIIPs). Without Linux, zAAP, and zIIP engines, the mainframe revenue stream would have been declining for the past seven years. Instead, it has grown or remained flat, which is a victory for such a vintage product line.

The System z10 BC comes in the same customized rack as the z10 EC, and from the outside, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference without reading the label. It does, however, differ inside a bit. The z10 BC system board, which IBM calls books, are based on z6 chips that have three cores that are working but one is an electronically isolated dud that it could not have put into the z10 EC box. The z10 BC, which stupidly has a product number 2098-E10, just so people can confuse it wrongly with the EC product - offers from one to five mainframe engines as well as up to 10 Linux engines and 10 integrated coupling facilities (which are used to cluster mainframes).

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