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A JOINT ASSAULT ON THE MAINFRAME HARDWARE MARKET

Two companies are about to launch a joint assault on IBM's mainframe processor market.  Platform Solutions, Inc. has built a series of large scale computers that can load and run software written for the IBM z9 and its antecedents.  T3 Technologies will incorporate PSI's technology in a line of midrange IBM compatible mainframes.  While these new processors might not break IBM's grip on the mainframe base, they could well inspire IBM to make substantial changes in its mainframe technology.

HP rx6600
HP rx6600
The four-socket, eight-core server
can house a 300 MIPS mainframe

Platform Solutions is attempting to exploit the proven mainframe compatibility of Amdahl Corp. (now part of Fujitsu), which it has extended to match IBM's current 64-bit processor architecture.  The technology is packaged as a firmware system that runs on Itanium hardware, such as HP Superdome servers.  The Itanium family of processors is designed to work with firmware; its standard instruction set is only one application of the underlying hardware architecture.  What this means to PSI is that its products promise to be far more efficient than mainframe emulations in software.  In this case, efficiency means that PSI's systems will require fewer processor cycles to execute a mainframe instruction than, for example, an Intel based system running the Hercules mainframe emulator.

Platform is also the heir to Amdahl's rights to obtain IBM software licenses, and the legal know-how required to preserve and extend those rights.  IBM's isn't making much noise about this, but at the most recent SHARE conference held last August, PSI and a prestigious prospect, Lufthansa, talked openly about their joint effort.  There's quite a difference between an experiment, which is how IBM may view the PSI-Lufthansa demonstration, and the commercial marketing of PSI systems for which IBM will supply and support its full range of mainframe software products.  Initially, PSI is expected to offer processors with power than falls within the wide performance range of the z9 series.  Its emphasis will be on competition with IBM's flagship models, the z9 EC group.

HEWLETT-PACKARD rx6600

FEATURE SPECIFICATION
PROCESSOR TYPE Itanium-2 dual core
CLOCK SPEED 1.6 GHz or 1.4 GHz
CHIP SOCKETS 4
PROCESSOR CORES 2 - 8
GLUE CHIPS HP zx2
$135,000 33%
SYSTEM BUS BANDWIDTH 8.5 GB/sec
MAXIMUM MEMORY 192 GB
MEMORY BANDWIDTH 17 GB/sec
MAXIMUM WEIGHT 75 kg
MAXIMUM POWER 1.7 KW
HEIGHT IN RACK 12 in / 7U

T3 plans to sell machines bearing its own T3 Liberty brand built using PSI firmware and HP rx6600 servers.  These HP boxes have four sockets, each able to take a dual core Itanium.  Because T3 systems will be configured to use at least two cores for systems management functions, each box can have one to six cores running in mainframe mode.  The machines will match the performance of smaller IBM z9 BC systems.  Our estimate is that the initial T3 products will deliver 50 to 70 MIPS per core.  Single core configurations will run at something like 70 MIPS, while six core boxes will run at 300 MIPS, perhaps a bit more, depending on how much computing energy goes up the multiprocessor chimney.

Both vendors have made it clear that their systems are not confined to mainframe emulation.  Using processor cores not loaded with mainframe firmware and not required for other systems operations, they can run all the software that the underlying servers support when sold directly by Hewlett-Packard.  That means the servers can run Linux, Windows, HP-UX, and Open VMS at the same time as they manage workloads running in any IBM mainframe environment.

Skeptics question the whole concept, pointing out that the plug compatible manufacturers of the bipolar era were driven out of the market when IBM moved to CMOS.  IBM may have even more processor prowess these days.  It has its mainframe chips, it has the Power family, it has its game chips (that are cousins of its Power chips), and it could, if it wished, use Intel or AMD circuits to replace, complement, or supplement its System z engines.

This may be more than just a speculative comment.  IBM already sells processors that use a variety of processors under one skin to deliver a mix of server environments.  They are called System i.  Machines in this family run their native software, offer support for some workloads that use a standard Power platform, and can include, as options, integrated X86 processors, too.

Amdahl 470
The Original Amdahl 470
The first IBM compatible mainframe
outran IBM's own big iron

But the PSI-on-Itanium solution is distinct from the System i design.  The versatile Itanium processors are all the same.  Users can move work from one core to another.  Users of Series i computers cannot move an X86 email subsystem to a native processor or a processor running in Power mode.  Nor can the System i provide processor sparing and failover technology that crosses processor architecture boundaries.  The different engines under a System i hood are integrated, but they are not uniform and they do not share all system resources without regard to the architectural mode in which they operate.  And then there's the obvious example, mainframes with processor circuits adjusted to provide Linux support and specialty functions such as Java processing.

But there's a lot more to the PSI concept, and in particular the implementation of PSI technology that will be offered by T3.

In the PCM era that began in the mid-1970s, Amdahl said its machines were IBM compatible, that they cost less than IBM brand processors, and that they were faster, too.  Amdahl aimed at users of IBM's biggest systems, customers who always seemed to be hankering for faster engine speed.  PSI is aiming at big targets, but for now, least, it will not be offering machines with faster engines than the IBM z9 has, nor will it have more total power in a single box.

There's even more contrast between T3 and the original PCM product strategy.  T3's machines will compete with the low end of IBM's mainframe line.  These customers aren't running out of MIPS, and if they happen to need an upgrade it's just a matter of installing fresh firmware.  If these users choose a T3 computer over an IBM one, they will be choosing the compatible box because they believe it offers better value and more versatility.  Sure, some will like the smaller box; z9 BC machines show up in huge, mainly empty, cabinets.  But that is unlikely to be a decisive or even significant factor in the purchase decision.

So, we'll all have to watch how T3 and PSI position their products, and to see how well they actually do in a market IBM is very keen to keep to itself.

— Hesh Wiener September 2006


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