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IBM's Z9 a Cure All?

Who said the PC is killing the mainframe computer?

Those that heard IBM officials talk about the potential of the mainframe in the modern computing age would think that Big Iron has always waxed and never waned. For Big Blue, the talk is now centered around collaborative processing at a time when supply chains have gotten incredibly complex.

IBM Tuesday launched the z9 mainframe line to applause at an event in New York, which included demonstrations of the Blue Gene supercomputer and, of course, mainframes.

By many analysts' accounts, the systems vendor hasn't rolled out the red carpet for one of its mainframes in such a showy fashion in years. Then again the z9 surpassed the heights reached by its z990 T-Rex predecessor.

The culmination of a three-year, $1.2 billon development effort, z9 doubles the processing power and capacity of the T-Rex. It will process data at a speed of 17,800 million instructions per second (MIPS). The largest configuration of 54 processors will sport 18 billion transistors and pipe data at 172.8GB per second, or 80 percent faster than T-Rex.

Big Blue believes its new mainframe, which will ultimately process a staggering 1 billion transactions in a day, will codify so-called collaborative computing, which isn't a new concept.

As IBM's systems and technology group chief Bill Zeitler said, some 80 million users log on to the Internet to play Microsoft's Halo game. IBM would love for its z9 to enable the same type of computing for businesses that want to connect their partners, suppliers and customers.

Collaborative processing means using virtualization technologies and encryption to share information real-time inside a business.

To provide this collaborative environment, IBM had to focus on hammering out a lot more security features, said Erich Clementi, the zSeries general manager responsible for the z9 launch. Clementi told internetnews.com in an interview at the event that IBM tailored the new mainframe based on customer requirements.

"Customers shaped the development of this system, and I've spent hours with Bank of America and other customers thinking about what the next system has to be," Clementi said, noting that he holds long meetings with customers twice a year to hear their concerns.

With all of the recent lost storage tapes and data breaches from major institutions like CitiFinancial and Bank of America, businesses are rightly paranoid about compromises on their computers. They require a higher level of security than what the z990 provided. That's where the z9 comes in.

"You need to have an encryption solution that scales and an encryption solution which allows you to economically do this within the time window you have without disrupting your operations." Clementi said. "That's a vast problem."

IBM intends to meet this need with new cryptography processors and hashing software that goes beyond the traditional CICS , RACF and PKI security elements that have appeared in the mainframe since its inception in 1968, Clementi said.

For example, the z9 would enable financial services firms to exchange sensitive information with several other parties outside the office. Data would be encrypted so that no one would be able to read it if it fell into the wrong hands, and then decrypted by the recipient for internal use.

Customers also apparently want even more virtualization than they've been getting. So the Z9 offers double the logical partitions of the z990, with 60. This allows customers to carve up thousands of virtual servers on one box, running legacy COBOL applications alongside new workloads written in Java or Linux.

The ability to run old software with new applications is important because legacy products still do the trick for some companies even though roughly newer business applications now make up more than 75 percent of the software running on Big Iron.

Analysts said IBM's plan makes sense given the current computing trends toward real-time information distribution.

Collaborative computing is something that people have been talking about for a couple of years," said Pund-IT Research analyst Charles King at the event. "But this is the first time I've really heard of any vendor talk about offering the infrastructure to provide it."

"When you get right down to it, it's about enabling communication from one company to another and creating an environment that's secure and reliable so customers don't have to worry about their data leaking out."

Clipper Group analyst Mike Kahn said the world needs collaborative computing because the 21st century has given way to "a lot of complex relationships between competitors, suppliers, partners and customers.

"It used to be that you could put things in a single server queue and you could sort of read your mail in order," Kahn explained. "Now every time somebody comes to a Web site or tries to process a transaction, there is a cascade of other transactions, inquiries and ascertainments that need to be done over and over again in real time.

"That complexity drives a number of needs and different ways of thinking about enterprise processing and IT infrastructure."

Rivals such as HP and Sun Microsystems try to denigrate IBM's mainframes by arguing that the machines, as well as the software that runs on them, are too inflexible and antiquated. They also stress that the programming talent for mainframes is too scarce.

IBM wants to stave off those claims by putting the collaborative computing twist on its new machine, which ties into the company's strategy: on demand.

Zeitler summed up the launch by saying the "world is online and is giving way to on demand." This has been IBM's mantra since 2002, describing a business model for creating infrastructure that helps customers obtain information in real time when they need it.