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IBM embiggens iron with System zEnterprise EC12 mainframe

Five score 5.5GHz engines wrapped in a funky new chassis

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Like other chip makers, IBM cannot get every one of its chips to come out of the East Fishkill fab to work perfectly at all speeds and with all cores working. And as it has done with prior mainframes, IBM is using a mix of core counts in the z12 multichip module (MCM) processor complexes that package up multiple z12 chips into a block that is then welded to a zEnterprise EC12 book.

In this case, depending on the model and performance required, IBM uses a mix of z12 processors with four, five, or six active cores. A z12 MCM has five physical processors in it, for a total of 30 cores, and a zEnterprise EC12 system has four processor books, for a total of 120 cores maximum in a single system image.

IBM has these cores, which it calls processor units, or PUs, do a number of different tasks. They can be configured as Central Processors, or CPs, that are designated to run mainframe operating systems, including z/OS, z/VM, z/VSE, and z/TPF. By default, some are configured as System Assist Processors, or SAPs, and they are delegated to handling I/O processing so the CPs running workloads are not burdened with such work.

You can configure the cores as Internal Coupling Facilities, or ICFs, which run IBM's Parallel Sysplex system coupling software, which is used to lash together multiple physical mainframes in a shared cluster for making larger database and transaction processing complexes. (If you wanted to, you could turn a whole zEnterprise EC12 machine into a giant Parallel Sysplex switch, with 101 active CPs dedicated as ICFs.

These mainframe engines can also, of course, be designated as Integrated Facilities for Linux, of IFLs, to run Red Hat or SUSE Linux, or as z Application Acceleration Processors (zAAPs) for running Java or z Integrated Information Processors (zIIPs) for offloading DB2 database work. IBM also keeps one core in each machine in emergency reserve and has another two designated spares. This is one way the mainframe keeps its five nines of availability on a single system.

IBM charges for mainframe engines based on the work they will do, so a CP is the most expensive one since it will run z/OS, z/VM, z/VSE, and z/TPF. The IFLs are considerably less expensive (somewhere around a quarter of the price of CP) since IBM wants to have mainframe shops deploy Linux on their big iron rather than on x86 machinery.

zAAPs and zIIPs cannot run Java or DB2 routines any faster than CPs, but they offer the ability to offload Java and DB2 work from the CPs on engines that cost substantially less than a CP. This is how IBM has cut mainframe prices over time.

In effect, if you are running a mainframe operating system, your engine price is more or less frozen at levels set in the early 2000s. With no alternative to run your apps, the only way to cut costs is to keep moving to faster iron and use offload processing to zIIPs, zAAPs, and IFLs as much as possible.

There are five models of the System zEnterprise EC12 machine, as shown below:

System zEC12 mainframe models

System zEC12 mainframe models

Comparing the top-end models of the zEnterprise 196 and EC12 machines, the z12-based box has a total of 101 available CPs for customers to configure as they see fit, up from 80 on the z11-based machines. Both lines had five different models, but the new box has 161 unique capacity settings (set by clock speeds, activated cores, and other golden screwdriver tricks) compared to 125 different MIPS ratings for the z11-based systems.

The overall potential system capacity of the zEnterprise EC12 machine, as gauged in MIPS, is about 50 per cent greater than on the prior zEnterprise 196 server. That should work out to around 75,000 aggregate MIPS for the big bad zEC12 machine compared to 50,000 MIPS for the biggest z196 box from two years ago.

So, to recap, single engine performance is up by 25 per cent and system capacity is up by 50 per cent.

The one thing that has not changed between the two generations of System z mainframes is main memory capacity, which stands at a maximum of 3TB.

IBM is obviously still supporting its Redundant Arrays of Independent Memory (RAIM) data protection on that main memory. The RAIM function is implemented in the on-chip memory controllers and borrows the striping and parity protection ideas of RAID 5 disk arrays and adds it to memory.

RAIM made its debut two years ago on the zEnterprise 196 systems, and is another high availability feature that makes mainframes different from other systems and presumably worth a premium. All of that 3TB can be allocated to a single system image if you want, and a logical partition (LPAR) virtual machine on the zEC12 can span up to 1TB of virtual memory.

The new mainframes sport PCI Express 3.0 peripheral slots, the second machines on the market to do so (Intel was the first to support PCI Express 3.0 with its on-chip controllers in the Xeon E5 family launched in stages earlier this year.) The machines have up to 48 PCI Express 3.0 slots. They also support 6Gb/sec SAS links to internal disks.

As with the previous System z mainframes, the new zEnterprise EC12 box comes in variants that are water-cooled or air-cooled, with the water-cooled option being more efficient at taking away the prodigious heat from those high-clocking z12 engines and all of the components wrapped around them.

IBM is also now taking power and cooling into the machine from above if customers want to do that in addition to the networking wiring that it allowed with previous mainframes, thus allowing for the zEC12 machine to be put on a concrete slab floor instead of a raised floor like old-fashioned glass house.

The power and cooling profile of the zEC12 is the same as the z196, according to Frey, and the rack is essentially the same size but is a few inches deeper thanks to the funky new doors Big Blue has put on the rack.

Making mainframes safe and sound

Security, resiliency, and high availability are the three mantras of the IBM mainframe for the past several decades, and it shows.

The z12 processors have on-chip encryption, just as did the prior z11 processors. But the zEC12 machine is also getting a new outboard security coprocessor card, called the Crypto Express4S.

This coprocessor sports firmware that meets the European Union's PKCS#11 standard for encryption and also supports the EMV payment security standard espoused by American Express. This card is tamper resistant and has higher performance, but exactly how much was not clear ahead of its announcement today.

In most modern systems, all of the various hardware and system software components in the box are chattering all the time, streaming up alerts to system administrators. With a new capability called zAware, IBM is moving up into the software stack to help administrators figure out when mainframe applications are getting wonky - and where.

"We've done a great job diagnosing hardware failures, but zAware takes it up another level in the system," says Frey, adding that in most mainframe shops today, operators are intentionally suppressing about 85 percent of alerts because no human being can cope with the onslaught of data.

The zAware software resides partially in firmware and partially in its own logical partition and is based on a project code-named "Melody" out of IBM Research. zAware takes all of the operational and message traffic on the system, chews on it, and does pattern matching and other heuristics to figure out if a mainframe is running properly.

zAware samples all the operational data generated by the mainframe and its software stack ever two minutes and does a quick analysis over a 10 minute interval to see if anything peculiar is going on. It then compares this data to a 90 day rolling average to check it against a baseline for what the mainframe's behavior should be across the hardware and the software.

zAware is designed to look for anomalies operators might miss and is trained to find rare or infrequent messages as well as detecting an unusual number of normal messages or messages that are issued out of context that might indicate a problem. zAware is a priced feature on the mainframe, but no word yet as to what that price will be.

Still a system of systems

The mainframe has been pitched as a "system of systems" since the zEnterprise 196 launch two years ago, linking outboard blade servers based on Power7 and Xeon processors to the mainframe complex on a secure network that the outside world cannot see but mainframe operating systems and internal networking can so they can be used as coprocessors for those mainframes.

This is called a System z blade extension, or zBX for short, and the basic feeds and speeds have not changed here. There is a new zBX Model 003, however, which is required for the zEC12 machine; it has new firmware and updates to the supported hypervisors on the PS701 and HX5 blade servers plus some improvements to the link aggregation on the networking between the mainframe and the top-of-rack switches in the zBX racks.

IBM supports up to 112 PS701 blades and up to 56 HX5 blades in four zBX racks for offloading work to Windows, Linux, or AIX servers. Each rack can have up to two blade enclosures and has the necessary switches to link servers to each other and the mainframe as well as room for local storage for the Power and Xeon blades.

The zEnterprise EC12 mainframe supports the current z/OS V1.13 release as well as the earlier V1.12 release; if you pay for lifecycle extension services, IBM will let you run z/OS V1.10 or V1.11 on the box. You can run z/VM V5.4, V6.1, or V6.2 on the machines if you patch them with hardware updates, and ditto for z/VSE V4.3 and V5.1 as well as z/TPF V1.1.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 and 6 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 and 11 can run on the IFLs. On the zBX blades, you can run AIX 5.3, 6.1, or 7.1 on the Power7-based blades. RHEL 5 and 6 and SLES 11 are supported on the Xeon blades as is Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 (with Datacenter Edition being recommended).

All models of the zEnterprise EC12 mainframe will be available on September 19, and it is likely that IBM will ship enough machines too goose what might have otherwise been a dismal third quarter for mainframes, and for servers in general with the Power7+ processors for its Power Systems boxes not yet launched.

IBM is offering upgrades from the prior System z10 Enterprise Class and zEnterprise 196 machines into the zEnterprise EC12 box; these upgrades will be available on September 19 as well. Model conversions and upgrades within the zEC12 family and upgrades will not be available until December, so pick your initial machine carefully.

IBM has been vague about mainframe pricing since its Consent Decree with the US government was rescinded more than a decade ago, and all IBM is saying today is that the entry price of the zEC12 is consistent with the entry price of the z196 it replaces. That doesn't really tell anyone much. We'll try to get a better handle on pricing for a future story. ®

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