IBM aims for Linux customers with 'baby' mainframe

New z10 equivalent to 232 x86 servers.

IBM is targeting midsize business customers that use Linux with a new "baby" mainframe that costs just a fraction of the amount charged for the high-end mainframe IBM released in February.

The System z10 Business Class (z10 BC), announced Tuesday and generally available now, follows in the tradition of IBM refreshing its primary mainframe product and then following up several months later with a stripped-down, cheaper version, says Forrester analyst Brad Day. But the so-called "baby mainframe" is a pretty strong machine on its own, and lets IBM compete more aggressively against various RISC and Itanium-based servers as well as high-end x86 and x64 machines, Day says.

"This is a Paul Bunyan version of the baby mainframe," he says. IBM is clearly making a move against vendors like HP, Sun and Fujitsu who are targeting legacy customers with mainframe migration programs, Day says.

IBM has optimized the mainframe for Linux, working with Red Hat and Novell to fix bugs and ensure that all drivers run solidly with the Linux operating system, says System z marketing vice president Karl Freund. IBM executives also decided the mainframe simply wasn’t cheap enough to convince customers to run new Linux workloads, he says.

IBM lowered by 50% the cost of a specialty engine that lets the business-class mainframe run Linux, bringing the price of this add-on capability down to $47,500, according to Freund. Application servers, databases and Web servers will probably be the most common Linux applications to run on the new business-class machine, he says.

"We're continuing to make the mainframe more mainstream, more interesting to new customers, and more interesting to medium-sized businesses," he says.

IBM's mainframe has supported Linux for five years, and Big Blue is increasing its push on this front because Linux because is becoming a more sophisticated enterprise-class operating system, Freund says. The mainframe doesn't have a way to run Windows workloads but "It's something we're certainly interested in exploring," he adds.

The z10 BC is nearly 40% faster and has nearly four times the maximum memory of its predecessor, IBM says. The new business-class mainframe delivers capacity equal to 232 x86 servers, while the high-end mainframe is equal to nearly 1,500 x86 servers, IBM says.

With the exception of IBM, the mainframe market is pretty much dead, Day says. Customers that have never owned a mainframe are often wary of buying one, but IBM has tried to reinvent the system to operate new workloads, such as ones more commonly run on RISC and Itanium processors. Day says the effort has been successful, as much of IBM's mainframe growth over the last two years can be attributed to new workloads rather than upgrades to pre-existing machines.

The mainframe has always run data-intensive transaction processing applications such as those used in the financial and utility industries, Day notes. Now it's getting better at running compute-intensive workloads that demand high amounts of CPU and memory, he says.

The basic pricing of z10 BC starts at under $100,000, about the same as the previous business class mainframe. Typical deals will range from $250,000 to $500,000 Freund says. The top-of-the-line z10 mainframe announced in February starts at $1 million and the price increases dramatically depending on the configuration.

IBM argues that the new business-class mainframe can be more cost-effective than x86 servers because eight x86 machines can be consolidated onto a single mainframe processing core.

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