On one level, IBM’s new z13, announced last Wednesday in New York, is exactly what the mainframe world has been expecting for the last two and a half years – more capacity (a big boost this time around – triple the main memory, more and faster cores, more I/O ports, etc.), a modest boost in price performance, and a very sexy cabinet design (I know it’s not really a major evaluation factor, but I think IBM’s industrial design for its system enclosures for Flex System, Power and the z System is absolutely gorgeous, should be in the MOMA*). IBM indeed delivered against these expectations, plus more. In this case a lot more.

In addition to the required upgrades to fuel the normal mainframe upgrade cycle and its reasonably predictable revenue, IBM has made a bold but rational repositioning of the mainframe as a core platform for the workloads generated by mobile transactions, the most rapidly growing workload across all sectors of the global economy. What makes this positioning rational as opposed to a pipe-dream for IBM is an underlying pattern common to many of these transactions – at some point they access data generated by and stored on a mainframe. By enhancing the economics of the increasingly Linux-centric processing chain that occurs before the call for the mainframe data, IBM hopes to foster the migration of these workloads to the mainframe where its access to the resident data will be more efficient, benefitting from inherently lower latency for data access as well as from access to embedded high-value functions such as accelerators for inline analytics. In essence, IBM hopes to shift the center of gravity for mobile processing toward the mainframe and away from distributed x86 Linux systems that they no longer manufacture.

Many of the improvements to the z System are technical, such as larger memory, multi-threading, SIMD instructions and massively scaled I/O, while others such as extremely advantageous software license terms for new workloads, are contractual changes. But in combination they all directly address the traditional economic penalty of using a mainframe for the kind of processing that typically happens on the external x86 systems. Coupled with the operational advantages of the mainframe, which include extraordinary reliability, extreme security, and a level of total integration that cannot be matched by any competing technology, IBM can now make a plausible argument that the mainframe deserves consideration as a platform for workloads that were previously “obviously” destined for the surrounding x86 servers.

How plausible is IBM’s case? While there are many dependencies, the most obvious being the degree to which the mobile application makes use of mainframe-resident data, IBM has at least produced some interesting new reference customers to prove the proposition, the most intriguing being Radixx International, a specialized airline reservation system provider which, according to IBM, handles 7% of the world’s airline reservations – not a giant, but still a big workload. Radixx CEO Ron Peri described their migration off an infrastructure of clustered x86 systems to a z System, citing, among the contributing factors, a reduction in cost due to the reduced complexity of managing the mainframe compared to the multiple x86 systems.

Walking away from the announcement event, I am impressed with what this will do for IBM’s mainframe fortunes, as well as give us at least a temporary respite from “Death of the Mainframe” press coverage (a lot of the mainstream press does not understand the extended cyclicality of the mainframe business, where users slow purchases in anticipation of the next upgrade cycle**). IBM will definitely harvest its usual quota of upgrade business as its installed base upgrades its systems, and if its aggressive push to capture emerging mobile workloads is even modestly successful, it could put the mainframe business back on a solid and unambiguous growth trajectory.


*MOMA – Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Arguably the best collection of modren art in the world, definitely worth a visit when you are in the city.

**With the mainframe product cycle running about 2.5 years, there are some journalists who have not been in the business long enough to have seen a complete product cycle.