When IBM Corp. announced what it calls its most sophisticated computer ever, the System Z9 in New York City to media and analysts recently, the mood seemed rather nostalgic.Nice change from yet another bland PC and server announcement, commented one industry reporter who has covered IT for 30 years.It reminded him, he said, of the days when mainframe were not only a regular occurrence but could be counted on to generate excitement.
Fond remembrances aside, analysts say the announcement was not only testimony to the mainframe’s staying power, but spoke volumes about how its role has been completely redefined. “Behind the basic message, there was a subtle agenda,” says Mike Kahn, an analyst with The Clipper Group.
“When you buy a mainframe, you are also buying the operating environment,” meaning that at this level, organizations are not just looking at raw power, they are attaching huge im-portance to issues such as security and data integrity. And cost issues are often put aside, he adds.
“There are areas where the mainframe excels,” said Erich Clementi, general manager, IBM Systems, just moments before pulling a large blanket off a Z9 machine in a meeting room inside Manhattan’s W hotel. He cited “centralized security” as an example.
In a PC environment, security tends to be one of the first things that gets compromised. With the Z9, the identities of consumers and their personal information can be encrypted not only on the mainframe, but also where ever the information is stored, including tapes.
That there have been several items reported in the news lately of tapes gone missing seemed to add to Clementi’s comments, but as far as IBM was concerned, there were many more reasons why CIOs should be giving the mainframe a second look.
Another was simplified management of complex IT environments. IBM was also heavily promoting the benefits of virtualization, by which all components of a network can be graphically rendered on a console screen so they can be managed effectively.
Like security, virtualization is not new, its been around 40 years, and has its origins in the data centre, usually in reference to managing a company’s storage devices.
The concept is gaining momentum again because now it is not only possible to virtualize other components of a network (servers, networking gear and storage) if these components have an Internet (IP) address. For IT managers, the payoff comes from being able to, for example, reallocate computing power to underutilized resources elsewhere on the network.
Nigel Fortlage, vice-president of information technology at Winnipeg-based GHY International, a customs clearing and brokering firm, and the only Canadian at a panel of CIOs at the event, said “virtualization is now more than a pipe dream.
“We have gone from a situation where we spent 95 per cent of our time doing server management to only five per cent,” he said.
With only four IT people serving 108 employees in nine locations, Fortlage says virtualization has also helped by consolidating servers, simplifying back-up and better resource allocation, freeing his time to be “more responsive to his business end-users.”
And he also says he has a tighter control on security. “Everybody focuses on Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPPA (privacy legislation), but since 9-11, increasing regulation and security concerns in the supply chain has forced us to more closely tie into our partners,” he said.
Other CIOs at the event were steerring in the same direction: mainframes excel when there is a need to share ever-increasing amounts of data in highly secure, collaborative environments.
Jim Dillon, CIO for New York State, said more powerful mainframes are welcome because the amount of data is escalating while the need to share information across government departments is intensifying.
Mainframes are well suited for this role because they allow you to both “secure and share data” at the same time.
Nina Schwenk, IT committee chair for the Mayo Clinic, said the same requirement exists in health care, and it’s important to connect all these disparate systems now, because soon there will be an exponential increase in the amount of data.
“The promise of genomics is that we will be able to build a personalized profile of each patient which will move us into (an era of) individual care,” she says.
Analyst Kahn says you can read a lot of things into the Z9, and it’s “not just what you are going to do with all that power “It’s not just the box, it’s also a statement of direction. It’s about more centralized computing and more centralized control. It’s about where IBM says the world is going.”

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