Get ready for the Windows Mainframe

In today’s cloud-centric, virtual everything world it’s easy to forget that the mainframe still dominates enterprise IT. So when IBM announced zEnterprise in July 2010 its potential as a virtualization platform may have been overlooked. Now however it may be time to look again.

One of the more interesting features of the zEnterprise platform is the zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension (zBX). This separate rack-based component developed from IBM’s BladeCenter architecture can today be used to extend the zEnterprise platform to include POWER7 based modules to run IBM AIX as well as specialist processors such as IBM’s Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) or Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) for DB2. Along with the main launch announcements IBM indicated that it would also support Windows on zBX at some point in the future. IBM has now confirmed that this point is upon us, and as of December 16 IBM will deliver Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition running in a zBX chassis on its HX5 blades. IBM customers should already realize that this does not mean that IBM is announcing Windows in zVM (i.e., on IBM CMOS processors).

Each single-width HX5 blade can support two Intel Xeon E7-4800 or E7-2800 processors, up to 256 GB of memory in 16 DDR-3 VLP DIMM slots (expandable to 40 DIMM slots, using a MAX5 expansion blade), and space for 2 x 50 GB SSDs. With up to 112 blade modules per zBX, the zEnterprise platform makes for a powerful if somewhat expensive x86 platform.

This is then not quite Windows on the mainframe, more like Windows alongside the mainframe. Which will not quite as satisfying geeky as the prospect of running Windows directly on a z-series mainframe, is infinitely more practical. IBM is not targeting the zBX as a general purpose virtualization platform to compete with the Cisco UCS blade platform. Instead, IBM is banking on the prospect that its existing Big Iron customers will find the idea of a single platform ecosystem, where mainframe, Linux Java, AIX, and now Windows workloads can be managed as a single unified environment using IBM’s zEnterprise Unified Resource Manager (zManager) to administer their mainframe and BladeCenter platforms. zManager allows the supported zBX platforms to be virtualized into a single system for management. It allows for the prioritization of workloads in the system and can also monitor the various platforms for signs of bottlenecks or faults and modify the overall system to recover and maintain a specified quality of service level based on business policies. Delivering many of the same benefits of hypervisor -based virtualization without the intervening software layer.

An attractive alternative to having to consider the prospect of managing each platform separately. Operational efficiencies aside, the real benefit to enterprise customers is that this allows end to end applications, which for many enterprise customers are split across multiple operating systems, to be managed as a single virtualized system.

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