IBM z14 mainframe – sophisticated fixes for enterprise challenges

IBM launched its latest mainframe last week. The z14 will create an upward swing in the never ending see-sawing of the most important single server in the market. My Figure shows z System hardware revenues by quarter (on a rolling 4-quarter basis) with model introductions anchored to the left apart from the z14 itself. You’ll want to learn more about what IBM has added to its latest chip, processor unit and systems and what it means to the IT industry.

IBM’s hardware system and infrastructure revenues have changed dramatically since 2004 (see the Figure above for the rolling 4-qaurter totals by quarter). In particular:

  • Power processors declined rapidly along with Oracle/Sun’s Sparc and HP’s Itanium at the beginning of the decade as many – perhaps ‘most’ – customers gave up integrated Unix minicomputers for x86-based servers. Since then IBM has done a great job of expanding the customer base by promoting the use of Linux as an operating system and recruiting new server vendors, chip manufacturing and ecosystem participants through setting up the Open Power Foundation in 2015.
  • IBM specialised in delivering memory extensions and other high-end features to its x86 System x servers, but declining sales and the comparatively lower profit margins of using Intel or AMD chips led to it selling this business to Lenovo in 2014.
  • z Systems have returned consistently large, but slowly declining, revenues throughout the period and have been sustained by IBM’s enthusiastic endorsement of Linux for cheaper processing than zOS, great connections into x86-based application environments and ever-increasing sophistication in addressing the needs of modern Open Systems computing.
  • The biggest change was IBM’s decision to acquire SoftLayer in 2013 and shift from a hardware- to cloud-centric business model. While these additional revenues have failed to make up for the loss of hardware revenues over the years, they have helped IBM to gain a strong second place behind Amazon in the IaaS/PaaS market. Cloud services allow IBM customers to take advantage of its undoubted leadership in high security, transaction processing and financial industry expertise without the need to employ (relatively expensive) specialists in-house.

IBM highlighted the pervasive data encryption, analytics/machine learning and open enterprise cloud features of the z14 at launch to establish its unique selling points; these are enabled by new design features written into its silicon, sub-systems, controllers, attached hardware and software.

The z14 microprocessor

Chip design is a secret science understood by few, but vital to the onward improvement in system performance. Moore’s Law, which declares that microprocessor speeds double every 18 months at the same price has been broken in recent years as we run them at the fastest speeds possible. As a result designers have been concentrating on balanced system designs. IBM’s new z14 chip has 17 layers and 6.1b transistors, making it the most advanced microprocessor ever. The sale of its Technology chip fabrication business to GOBALFoundries in 2014 now saves IBM around $500m a year in manufacturing costs – the relationship will now be fully tested as the new mainframes are delivered to customers. These are the features of the new chip:

  • Physical chip – 14nm Silicon On Insulator (SOI), 17 layer, 6.1b transistors, 26.5 x 27.8mm.
  • Cores – <10 Processing Units (PUs) per chip.
  • Speed – 5.2MHz.
  • Cache memory – Level 1 (L1) and L2 in core, L3 on chip (shared by on-chip cores, communicates with cores, memory, I/O and system controller single chip module).
  • Instructions – new Single Instruction/Multiple Data (SIMD) code and for COBOL and JAVA.
  • Threads – single or 2-way Simultaneous Multi-Threading (SMT).
  • I/O – 1 Infiniband, 2 PCIe buses.
  • Storage – Guarded Storage Facility (GSF).
  • Memory Controller Unit (MCU) – interface to controller on memory DIMMs, supports RAIM (see below).

IBM describes its mainframe as a ‘system of record’, designed to handle the largest amount of data in the fastest and most secure way possible. Unlike the designers of Intel, AMD and its own Power chips, but similar to those of  Oracle Sparc and ARM, the developers of z14 have been able to focus on much more on specific, rather than general purpose, new features..

The z14 Processor Units (PUs)

Each chip is used in five different processor units of varying sizes. In particular:

  • Type – 3906.
  • Models (cores for characterisation) – M01 (33), M02 (69), M03 (105), M04 (141), M05 (170).
  • Cores – 41 PU cores per CPC drawer (49 for the M05), 1,832 MIPS each.
  • SAP processing – up to 23 per system using Symmetrical Multi-Threading (SMT).
  • Logical Partitions (LPARs) – 85.
  • Performance – enhanced for compression and crypto-processing.

The z14 systems made from these PUs will be the most sophisticated commercial servers ever delivered.

The z14 Memory

Systems of record require loading large databases into the server’s memory (IBM claims that it can run a 17TB Mongo DB database on the z14). The memory features of the z14 processor include:

  • Design – Redundant Array Of Independent Memory (RAIM).
  • Capacity – 256GB minimum/system, <8TB per drawer, standard 192GB fixed Heterogeneous System Architecture (HAS), <32TB per system, <16TB/LPAR (operating system dependent).
  • Flash ─IBM Virtual Flash Memory (replaces Flash Express on z13).

In Q2 2017 there was a surge in server memory purchasing, leading to SK Hynix shifting production from NAND to DRAM. A 32TB mainframe will be prohibitively expensive for all but the largest enterprise customers, although it will be reassuring for most that future upgrades will be relatively unlimited on the hardware side.

The z14 I/O

In the data-centric world of high-end transaction processing the ability of a system to load data in and out of the system memory is of paramount importance. IBM has added a number of new features to enhance performance over earlier systems. In particular:

  • Infiniband – the z14 will be the last high-end server to support Infiniband coupling features.
  • PCIe – third generation, 16GP/second, supports zHyperlink technology for faster connection to <3PB flash storage (i.e. IBM DS8000F all flash arrays).
  • Logical Channel Subsystems (LCSSs) – 6 with 4 sub-channel sets per LCSS.

IBM’s endorsement of PCIe over Infiniband matches the tremendous advances NVMe flash drives are making in the server market, while the addition of zHyperlink will give its own storage arrays advantages over Dell EMC ones at least for the time being.

Changes in software pricing

Despite the z14 being the current pinnacle it terms of server design, IBM has strong competition in systems of record from servers using relational databases (typically Oracle) rather than transaction processing monitors. as before with mobile transactions and with the z13 it has made adjustments to its pricing schema. In particular it has introduced Container Pricing for:

  • Co-located application deployment to compete more effectively with cloud-based and other on-premise solutions.
  • Application development and test, tripling capacity at the same monthly license cost.
  • Payments solution pricing, giving greater flexibility and cheaper through its new business metric pricing.

As always IBM is keenly aware of its competition, making adjustments to avoid becoming out-dated and overly expensive. z System has a value proposition almost entirely controlled by IBM (rather than by the huge number of players in the x86 ecosystem) allowing it to encourage the addition of new workloads at a lower cost than the more traditional ones.

The z14 meets the challenges of modern enterprise computing

IBM has lost server hardware market share to both HPE and Dell in recent years (see the Figure for the evolving quarterly market share of the top suppliers on a rolling 4-quarter basis), not least because the majority of servers have been sold as systems of ‘engagement’ rather than ‘record’. It has done better as a platform supplier (including operating system, infrastructure and application tool revenues) as it owns more of its own stack than any other vendor.

So far 2017 has been full of challenges for those running enterprise computing, such as preparation for the EU’s GDPR regulation, wanacry and other randsomware attacks and BA’s failed disaster recovery process. IBM’s mainframe revenues will undoubtedly increase in the rest of the year (it Systems group had a $1.3b backlog in Q2) due to the stochastic nature of this high-end product; they will also grow as customers invest in technology to help with increased application digitalisation, data privacy regulation, data breaches and security threats. The challenge for its competitors such as HPE, Dell, Intel, Oracle will be to understand, replicate and match IBM’s advantages at a lower price.

Let me know if this is helpful to you in understanding the positioning and advantages of this new machine – also if you need to know more. I use my own acronym buster on this site to remind me of technical terms I have forgotten.


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