IBM to switch its server datacentres to mainframes

Power savings and publicity for big-iron are the goals of the move

IBM is replacing 3,900 servers in its own datacentres with 30 mainframes, in order to save energy and to show that the mainframe is still very much alive.

IBM, in the first action since announcing a Project Big Green initiative in May to spend US$1 billion (NZ$1.3 billion) a year improving its energy efficiency, says that it expects to reduce its energy bill by 80%, and save US$250 million in overall costs, by replacing the servers with System z mainframes running Linux.

The mainframe computer has been serving large enterprises for more 40 years, but many such organisations gradually turned to minicomputers and then to distributed servers, which were more affordable, leaving the mainframe behind.

IBM now thinks heightened concern about energy costs gives it leverage in the market to sell more mainframes.

Servers operate at anywhere from 10-20% of capacity because they usually run only one software application. But mainframes operate at an average 80% of capacity, meaning one mainframe can replace multiple servers, says Bernie Meyerson, chief technologist at IBM’s systems and technology group. And virtualisation, the process of dividing a server into multiple logical servers to improve utilisation, was pioneered on mainframes decades ago, he says.

If 30 mainframes can do the work of 3,900 servers, any company can reduce its server count and reduce the need to build more datacentre space, Meyerson says.

“In major metropolitan centres there [isn’t] another electron available,” he says. “[A mainframe] eliminates the need to build more datacentres and build power plants to feed them.”

IBM’s mainframe project will bring some attention to the platform and prompt some IT customers to reconsider using them, says Mike Kahn, managing director of research firm The Clipper Group.

Of the mainframe’s estimated energy savings, “A lot of people can’t imagine that the dinosaur still has the economic advantages to deliver that,” Kahn says.

The IBM mainframe also has a cost advantage over servers in that it features specialty processors that IBM developed to work in a Linux environment, he says. Standard x86 processors are relatively costly because they run legacy applications in an IT system. But specialty processors developed by IBM for mainframes running Linux are less expensive. These specialty processors include the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), a processor called Zip, which runs Java applications on a mainframe and Zap, which runs DB2 applications.

While IBM’s project will draw new attention to the mainframe, they are not for everyone, says Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research. Users originally chose servers over mainframes because they were more affordable, he says. “The distributed server environment put a tremendous amount of computing power in the hands of users for much less money,” King says.

Hewlett-Packard, IBM’s main competitor, is in the midst of its own datacentre consolidation project, reducing to six the number of datacentres it operates, from 85.

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