“Big iron” remains an IT mainstay as enterprises look to centralize and secure data in hybrid environments

Many obituaries have been written for the venerable mainframe computer — colloquially referred to as “big iron” — but the rumours of its death have always been a bit premature.

And in the era of cloud computing, IBM Corp. sees more life yet for big iron with the release of its new entry-level mainframe, the z13s.

According to the company, the product has been optimized for hybrid cloud environments as organizations look to centralize data that was previously being moved onto distributed systems. It’s also designed for securing critical information and transactions using encryption the company said won’t slow down system performance.

The latest mainframe from IBM builds on the release of the z13 last year with security embedded into its hardware, including new advanced cryptography features.

Andy Coulson, the z System technical architect focused on security for IBM, said one of the chief concerns of customers is not sacrificing performance for security; consequently, the z13s is able to encrypt and decrypt data twice as fast as previous generations.

The advent of big data has meant analytics are taking front and centre as well, noted Coulson, and IBM is applying analytics to the mainframe to enhance security. Its new Cyber Security Analytics service helps proactively identify malicious activity by learning what is normal user behavior over time.

“It’s not good enough for enterprises to wait for a vulnerability.”

Coulson noted that 80 per cent of the world’s enterprise data runs on mainframes, which are known for their high availability as well as inherent security at both the hardware and software levels. What has changed, however, is the growing volume of unstructured data across the enterprise: “The mainframe is an excellent place for it,” he said.

Enterprises have been moving their data to more distributed environments, where the landscape for threats is even greater, Coulson said. IBM is looking to support customers who want to be flexible enough to provide mobile and social media-type transactions, but with the security and reliability mainframe technology provides. “They see the benefits of cloud delivery model but do have concerns about where the data actually is,” he said. “They are keen on the hybrid cloud, but it makes sense to keep data local and put in an infrastructure where security is high.”

He said chief concerns for customers when maintaining or adopting a mainframe for the first time are managing security while achieving the necessary throughput of data. One of the barriers to encryption adoption has been that it compromises transactional throughput and response time; the z13s includes an updated cryptographic, hardware-accelerated cryptographic coprocessor cards with faster processors and more memory to overcome this.

The z13s in particular is aimed at SMEs to make it easy for them to take advantage of the benefits of a mainframe. Beyond security and manageability, Coulson said other benefits of a mainframe are its smaller footprint and lower energy consumption when compared with the distribute computing alternatives.

Another reason the mainframe is resonating with many enterprises is the growth of open source, said Adam Jollans, global Linux strategy leader for IBM, which is being driven by hybrid cloud adoption and data analytics.

Last year, IBM introduced LinuxONE, which is specifically targeted at Linux users who want to use enterprise Linux but do not have experience with the mainframe. The company has also spent a great deal of effort to get open source applications on the mainframe, Jollans said, such as MongoDB, to make it easy for organizations running x86 technology to make the transition.

He said the cost dynamics and cycles in computing have made the mainframe appealing for some customers that have made the move after experiencing unreliability with their x86 platforms and as enterprises move back to a centralized computing model.

With the growth in open source, said Jollans, the barriers to entry for mainframes have all but been eliminated, particularly from a skills perspective. IBM offers a community cloud that developers can access and use a sandbox. It has also been working with universities so students can try out the mainframe and get used to it.

“We recognized that there was a concern about skills,” Jollans said.

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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