IBM’s DS8880: Sharpening the Focus on Mainframe Storage Needs

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 18, 2017

It’s been an odd half decade or so for the data storage industry. Despite the central roles that storage plays in IT products of every sort, storage vendors have been under pressure as traditional markets and opportunities continue to erode. Why so? For two reasons. First, because of the ongoing commoditization of storage components and hardware. Second, cloud players are using what are essentially loss-leading storage services to lure consumers and businesses, alike.

What are storage vendors to do in such circumstances? There’s no single or simple fix, but one approach is to willingly embrace leading edge storage technologies, like NAND-based flash drives. Another involves closely tracking and developing solutions that address clients’ core business needs. IBM’s new DS8880 all-flash storage family highlights how the company is pursuing both these paths to its customers’ and its own benefit.

IBM’s z Systems—Stressed to the 9s and managing it with aplomb

Let’s take a moment to consider how IBM is positioning the DS8880 all-flash family. As noted in its press release, the new solutions are designed for mid-range and large enterprise customers for whom high availability (HA), continuous up-time, and performance in demanding workloads, ranging from enterprise resource planning (ERP) and financial transactions to cognitive applications like machine learning and natural language processing, are critical.

To that point, IBM designed the DS8880 family to support ‘six nines availability,’ thus ensuring continuous operations 99.9999% of the time via deep integration between the new solutions and its z Systems mainframes. IBM’s z Systems has long been the business-critical platform of choice for global finance players, including banks, traders and credit card companies, as well as mid- to large-size enterprises of every kind. Why is that the case?

Consider the difference between “five nines” and “six nines” availability in practical terms. The former allows unplanned annual downtime of no more than 5.26 minutes per year while the latter allows just 31.5 seconds of downtime. Many suggest that the benefits of gaining about five extra minutes of availability simply isn’t worth the cost, but that really depends on the business.

For example, at the 50th anniversary celebration of the IBM mainframe in 2014, Citibank CEO Walter Winston estimated that his company’s IBM z Systems could process about 150,000 transactions per second or nearly nine million transactions per minute. You don’t need a calculator to realize the potential disruption that five minutes of unexpected downtime would wreak on Citibank, or why the company happily upgraded its entire mainframe infrastructure with all-new z Systems hardware.

This is obviously an extreme case but it demonstrates how blanket appraisals of “six nines” availability simply miss the boat.

What does the all-flash DS8880 family add to this? In collateral related to the announcement, IBM noted two examples of customers employing pilot versions of the new systems: the Health Insurance Institute of Slovenia which is using a DS8886 enterprise system for managing new customer-facing applications for over 2 million clients, and “the world’s largest bank” which is leveraging the DS8880 for near real-time fraud detection.

These examples both highlight obvious business value, but the ability to support complex functions at scale is (as it has always been) right down the IBM mainframe’s alley. However, thousands of companies depend on IBM mainframes to support an enormous variety of business applications and processes.

In fact, the model and feature variations available in the new DS8880 family underscore IBM’s recognition that organizations come in all shapes and sizes, and its intention to help them gain the inherent benefits of all-flash storage no matter what their requirements may be.

Final analysis

The new DS8880 all-flash family’s features and capabilities demonstrate how and why IBM continues to maintain a leadership position in enterprise storage markets. But the new solutions also offer insights into the synergies IBM has been able to capture and use to extend the value and life of its venerable z Systems mainframe platform.

From what I can tell, analysts and competitors have been denigrating the IBM mainframe and predicting its certain demise since at least 1993, when Louis Gerstner became the company’s CEO and launched what would become one of the IT industry’s most remarkable comeback stories. A prime tenet of Gerstner’s IBM reorganization was reinvesting in the mainframe, and the company has steadily continued that effort ever since.

Some of those efforts involved expected upgrading or reinventing core mainframe hardware, including microprocessor, interconnect and storage components, while others involved new software development, including investing in Linux and numerous other open source projects and communities. Still others involved closely integrating the platform with new technologies to enable z Systems customers to gain the full value of those innovations.

The new DS8880 all-flash family clearly falls into this last category, but will it also deliver substantial value to IBM? That’s hard to say at this point, since other major storage vendors with all-flash offerings, including Dell EMC and HDS also focus a good deal of attention on the mainframe customer base. Both are substantive players on their own merits, and neither should be dismissed lightly.

But the features and configurations of the DS8880 family demonstrate IBM’s deep understanding of and insights into mainframe customers’ existing and emerging requirements. That includes utilizing all-flash storage to power traditional HA-sensitive applications and embracing new applications leveraging IBM’s Watson cognitive computing platform. That is likely to benefit IBM and the DS8880 all-flash family solidly during the short term and further extend the remarkable longevity of the z Systems mainframe over time.

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