IBM Advances its IBM Z Cross-Market Evolution

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  April 11, 2018

Server platforms are anything but equal so it’s no surprise that they evolve differently. On the Industry Standard side of the aisle, new/updated Intel and AMD CPUs tend to lead the evolutionary charge but increasingly, other critical technologies also lend a hand. In fact, leading edge components, including memory, storage interconnects and GPUs all play critical roles in supporting the key workloads and modern applications that keenly interest many organizations.

The situation is considerably different in systems that leverage proprietary compute technologies, including IBM’s Z and Power Systems solutions. For one thing, generational changes in processor architecture tend to advance at a slower pace. For another, platform development encompasses and aims to take full advantage of other system-related efforts. Finally, vendors typically work closely with longtime customers and partners to ensure that upcoming solutions are well-attuned to their requirements and marketplace shifts.

IBM Z servers are also a special case because whatever changes may be considered, the company has never messed with the platform’s business critical reliability, availability and scalability (RAS) features. That’s why both IBM Z performance and its enterprise customer base remain so resolutely rock-solid. But IBM has also demonstrated, time and again that even a rock can change for the better. The new IBM z14 ZR1 and IBM LinuxONE Rockhopper II models announced this week are intriguing examples of that dynamic.

Inside and out – z14 ZR1 and Rockhopper II

The new ZR1 and Rockhopper II systems share a fair amount of DNA with previous “business class” IBM solutions, a designation that appeared first in 2005 during the System z9 family launch, splitting the platform by configuration size into small “business” and large “enterprise” offerings.

Keep in mind that a “small” z9 BC was still an enterprise-class server. It simply reflected IBM’s belief that scaled-down, affordable mainframes could provide significant value to a variety of small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Plus, the z9 BC offered a migration option to IBM customers with vital legacy investments that wanted modern system features but didn’t want or plan to significantly expand their mainframe infrastructures.

However, the new ZR1 and Rockhopper II qualify as notable departures from previous IBM offerings in terms of physical size, compute capacity and cost. The company’s decision to house the new systems in 19-inch industry standard, single-frame cabinets with conventional power and cooling requirements means that ZR1 and Rockhopper II solutions can be deployed outside traditional, enterprise-class “raised floor” facilities in environments.

That’s a big deal for SMEs with more modest IT requirements and budgets than larger enterprises but it should open doors for IBM among new customer classes, including public cloud companies and managed service providers (MSPs) where single frame system cabinets are the norm.

The flexible sizing of ZR1 and Rockhopper II and modest starting costs also lend a hand in this regard. For example, IBM notes that it is using a new “feature-based sizing” methodology for configuring/pricing ZR1 and Rockhopper II solutions. Entry level systems are available with 4 to 30 processing units (“PUs” a designation that covers both central processors and co-processors for specialized functions/workloads) and support compute capacity starting at 88 MIPs (millions of instructions per second).

What does it cost? That’s hard to say since, like other IBM Z offerings, ZR1 and Rockhopper II solutions will be configured according to specific customer requirements. That point aside, IBM is showing far more flexibility in regard to both cost and configuration options than it has in previous generation Z servers.

Why so? Two reasons spring to mind. First, IBM’s collaboration with over 80 clients during the ZR1 and Rockhopper II development process likely turned up evidence that rethinking sizing and pricing was warranted. Additionally, it plays into the company’s focus on greenfield markets and commercial opportunities for the new systems. That’s a pitch we’ve seen IBM make before, but the new capabilities offered by the z14 ZR1 and Rockhopper II make it appear more serious this time around.

Focusing on security and cloud

What are those new capabilities? Though they’re not entirely exclusive from one another, let’s split them into security and cloud computing features. On the security side, IBM is focusing on capabilities that are unique to IBM Z; Secure Service Containers and what the company calls “encryption at scale.”

The former is already featured on IBM LinuxONE systems as a central part of IBM’s blockchain solutions and services. Secure Service Containers for Linux offer a separate, secure framework for applications and data that once configured are isolated from even privileged users and can only be accessed via well-defined APIs.

In other words, by using Secure Service Containers for Linux, an organization’s critical data encryption keys can be safely protected from both external attackers and internal prying eyes, minimizing any risks of tampering or damage from attacks, including malware.

What is new in the z14 ZR1 and Rockhopper II is that Secure Service Containers now support generic containerized applications, rather than just specific pre-configured applications such as blockchain. That qualifies as a significant broadening of the workloads and data that can be securely protected with the new IBM Z solutions.

Other vendors offer solutions for encrypting the data and applications residing on specific servers and storage arrays, but IBM takes it a long step further. By leveraging the IBM Z architecture, such as on-chip crypto, the company can ensure that all of a server’s resources, including data, applications, databases and cloud services, can be easily encrypted all the time, with minimal impact on system or workload performance.

That makes IBM Z’s “encryption at scale” far more valuable for SME customers, especially those who need robust, reliable business critical application performance at often massive scale. But it also has implications for other IBM customers, including those offering pubic cloud services and SMEs deploying private clouds.

In fact, the company noted that the new solutions will be deployed in its own IBM Cloud facilities to support enterprise-level encryption and security services, including the new IBM Cloud Hyper Protect offerings announced at THINK 2018.

ZR1 and Rockhopper II systems also offer other key cloud features and capabilities. For example, Rockhopper II is a Docker-certified infrastructure for Docker EE (enterprise edition) that has been scale-tested with up to 330,000 Docker containers. That should be more than enough capacity for organizations exploring or actively pursuing modern application development and micro-services architecture solutions.

In addition, the IBM z14 ZR1 and Rockhopper II also support a new “16U Reserved” feature that leaves 16U of rack space open for additional server, storage and networking switch options. That means the new systems can be easily configured as “cloud in a box” solutions for specific enterprise applications and use cases, or cloud service delivery.

Final analysis

At one level, the new IBM z14 ZR1 and IBM LinuxONE Rockhopper II both find the company doing what it has done continually for nearly two decades—reinventing the IBM Z platform to meet the new and emerging needs of enterprise clients of virtually every size. However, rather than simply scaling-down enterprise-class systems for SMEs as it has done in the past, IBM is taking a significantly different approach this time around.

The company’s new “feature-based sizing” and pricing should make ZR1 and Rockhopper II intriguing options for numerous SMEs. More importantly, supporting unique enterprise-class security, encryption and cloud computing functionalities on the new systems could open the door among organizations that would never have otherwise considered IBM solutions.

As it has many times in the past, these fresh solutions find the company reinventing enterprise-class computing for new audiences while retaining and extending the key features its platforms have always supported. As a result, the z14 ZR1 and LinuxONE Rockhopper II should be winners for SME customers, cloud computing service providers and IBM.

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