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IBM fuels up zNext mainframe for launch

A little early – and just in time to boost Q4

It looks like Big Blue is getting ready to launch its next-generation mainframe, appropriately enough nicknamed the zNext system, and that it will come to market a little bit earlier than expected.

IBM is not hosting a big press event to launch the new machine, but it is having an online webcast with System z bigwigs and a few big mainframe customers on August 28. That's the same day that IBM's chipheads will be at the Hot Chips 24 chip conference in Silicon Alley, talking up the new processor at the heart of the zNext system as well as the forthcoming eight-core Power7+ processors.

The company has been clear that the current zEnterprise 114 and 196 machines are getting a bit long in the tooth and that Wall Street and customers alike should expect a revamped mainframe in the second half of this year. The word on the street was that this machine would be launched sometime in late September or early October, with shipments somewhat later, but now IBM has moved the zNext launch date up to be concurrent with the Hot Chips presentation.

It also looks like IBM is ready to ship the zNext systems soon. Compuware CEO Robert Paul said on a conference call with Wall Street analysts that Compuware was experiencing pent-up demand for its products and siad that the company expected IBM to start shipping the zNext boxes in September.

During the call, Paul also discussed the company's 18.1 per cent decline in mainframe-related software and services, to $79.9m, in its first quarter of fiscal 2013 ended in June. Compuware gets most of its margins from its mainframe tools, and profits were crunched in the quarter, down 38.4 per cent to $10.5m. In the June quarter, the mainframe products nonetheless posted income from operations of $57m, compared to an operating loss of $4.9m for its application performance management tools and a $695,000 operating loss for its Changepoint tools.

IBM zNext logo

Compuware is surely happy, as new IBM CEO Ginni Rometty must be, that Big Blue can get the mainframes out as soon as possible.

IBM has kept the lid on most of the feeds and speeds on the zNext processors and their related systems, but a report in the Wall Street Journal suggests that IBM will be boosting the top clock speed on the zNext processors to 5.5GHz, up 6 per cent from the current 5.2GHz top clocks on the quad-core z11 processors used in the current zEnterprise systems.

It seems unlikely that IBM will make radical architectural changes with the zNext systems, given that it already has one of the more complex and high-bandwidth cache memory and I/O subsystems of any server on the planet and high clock speeds to boost the kind of single-threaded workloads that mainframes are still best known for. IBM will no doubt add a bunch of new features to the zNext chip as it shrinks from the 45 nanometer processes used in the z11 processors to the 32 nanometer processes used to etch the zNext chips. It stands to reason that IBM will be goosing the on-chip embedded DRAM L3 cache memory in the zNext processors. The z11 chip has 24MB of L3 cache, and IBM could easily double it if it doesn't mind having a large and hot processor. (The history of mainframes suggests IBM does not indeed have a problem with this.)

The SMP hub and L4 cache chip used in the zEnterprise mainframes could also see a big cache bump. The z11 version of this chip has fabric I/Os, an L4 cache controller, and four bands of 24MB of L4 cache that feeds into each of the four cores on the z11 processor. This cache could also be doubled given the shrink.

And, if history is any guide, then the shrink to 32 nanometers should bring more cores in the die. IBM has gone from one to two to four cores over several generations, so the next logical step is six cores. But during the z8 generation used with the zSeries 990 mainframes in 2003, when yields were not great on the dual-core z8 chips, IBM used a mix of two-core and half-dud single-core chips inside the system. It could do the same thing again and therefore leave us with a wacky number of available processors.

As long as the price comes down and the performance goes up, mainframe shops won't care how the chips are glued together.

Rod Adkins, senior vice president in charge of IBM's Systems & Technology Group, which designs and manufactures its processors, servers, storage, and systems software, will be hosting the zNext mainframe launch on August 28. He will be joined by Doug Balog, who was named general manager of the System z mainframe line back in May, as well as by Jeff Frey, one of the founding architects of the Parallel Sysplex clustering technology for mainframes and the CTO in charge of the zNext system. Frey is one of six IBMers that were given Fellow status in 2010 and the prior zEnterprise was his baby as well. Executives at Citibank and Aon Hewitt, which are both big users of mainframes, will be on hand as well.

It will be interesting to see if IBM puts out a mainframe server node for its new Flex System modular servers, as it hinted it could do so years ago when the Flex machines were in development. At the moment, IBM is trying to position the mainframe as a central, secure hub from which to manage outboard Unix, Linux, and Windows blade servers – its so-called "system of systems" approach that debuted with the zEnterprise 196 machines launched two years ago – so a Flex z290 node is probably not in the cards for this announcement. But it would seem to be inevitable if the Flex System iron and the PureSystems approach is the converged future for IBM. ®

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