IBM data centre cuts fuel mainframe play

IBM Corp. is painting its data centres green with an upcoming consolidation initiative that will see some 3,900 servers in six data centres worldwide reduced into 30 System z mainframes running Linux.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based company claims the consolidation project, expected to be completed over the next two years, will reduce energy consumption in the data centres by about 80 per cent.

In line with Big Blue’s Project Big Green, the consolidation project is expected to deliver business benefits to the company over the next five years, including cost savings in energy, software and system support.

With a combined floor size of over eight million square feet, IBM’s major data centres are located in New York, Connecticut, Colorado, the U.K., Japan and Australia, supporting over 350,000 users worldwide.

A technology that has been in existence for four decades, the mainframe’s appeal is in its high availability, having enough computing power to behave as hundreds or thousands of individual virtual servers.

Aside from saving on energy consumption, the consolidated data centres will also help lower the cost of software licences, which are often priced on a per processor basis, an IBM statement said.

The significant reduction in the number of physical machines to manage will also allow IBM to save on system support costs and free up the company’s technical staff from system administration duties to work on other higher value projects, IBM added.

The initiative is also expected to boost uptake of IBM’s System z mainframe that has the ability to run Linux natively, said Rick Lechner, IBM’s vice-president for IT optimization.

Lechner said companies are increasingly moving back to the mainframe as a platform for server consolidation and virtualization. By enabling its System z mainframe to run Linux natively, porting applications from different servers to the mainframe has become easier, he added.

“Because it’s so easy to port applications from Unix environment, such as Solaris, through Linux, it makes the task of consolidating on to the mainframe far easier than if they were having to move applications in the traditional z OS environment,” explained Lechner.

BM’s data centre consolidation is an “excellent marketing tool” for its System z mainframe, which “have been basically flat in revenue” in the wake of the popularity of x86-based server virtualization platforms led by Intel and AMD, said William Terrill, associate senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

System z mainframe revenue has been averaging about four per cent in annual growth, said Terrill.

Terrill was quick to add, however, that despite the popularity of virtualization platforms over mainframe, the latter never really went away. And with the ability to run Linux, Terrill said mainframes may be making its big comeback soon.

“Mainframes have been designed for extremely high availability. A technology that has been around for 40 years is now being reintroduced under a different platform. If you have a huge number of applications that can be run on one platform, why would you not do that?” said Terrill.

Making a decision between x86 based virtualization platform and mainframes for consolidation, however, would depend on the number of physical servers an organization is running, noted the Info-Tech analyst.

It may be more cost-efficient for companies running around 500 servers or less to go with Intel or AMD-based x86 servers rather than invest on mainframes. Mainframes become a good alternative for large organizations running servers in the thousands, said Terrill.

In moving towards a mainframe environment, companies should also consider the availability of expertise, said Terrill. “The skill set to operate (mainframes) is not as common as (the skill set available) to operate a Windows or Linux-based server.”

He suggests companies that are considering a move towards a mainframe environment to tap into the mainframe expertise of the baby boomers and allow them to train younger staff.

IBM has been investing heavily on mainframe training in universities, including Ryerson University in Toronto, which have been churning out thousands of mainframe graduates in the past few years, according to Lechner.

Development of applications on a mainframe environment has also improved, he added.

“Because we can run Websphere, and Java as well as Linux on the mainframe, development for application on the mainframe now is very consistent with development on other platforms, so the skills required to design, develop and deploy applications on the mainframe environment are very similar to those on open systems or other systems,” Lechner said.

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