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New mainframe offers SMBs the chance to 'grow up'

With the z9 Business Class, small and medium-size businesses can have the power, security and reliability of a mainframe at an affordable price. Are they ready for it?

With a price tag of $100,000 (cheap for a mainframe), midsized companies can now put an IBM mainframe in their data centers.

But this mainframe's affordability and scalability alone shouldn't tempt midsized businesses to run out and buy one -- at least not without giving it some serious thought first.

The new z9 Business Class replaces IBM's previous mainframe for midsized companies, the z890, which was launched in 2004.

This new mainframe "is really the next generation," said Colette Martin, program director for System z Market Management. "Last year we introduced z9 systems for enterprise customers. The z9 is really the latest, greatest mainframe architecture."

The z9 Business Class's biggest differentiator from the z890 is its increased granularity, according to Tony Lock, a research director at The Sageza Group Inc. in Union City, Calif. A company that starts with the $100,000 z9 Business Class can upgrade its machine all the way to the equivalent of the $1 million z9 Enterprise Class, which was released last year.

"It starts off at roughly the same entry point [as the z890] in terms of size and power, but the granularity, to add power and capacity, is much more refined than with previous models," Lock said. "There's a complete upgrade path all the way to the very highest level in the z series."

But while having a machine as prestigious as the mainframe in your shop is tempting, experts recommend testing the waters first.

"Moving over to a mainframe is not an inconsequential decision," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Research in Hayward, Calif. "It's not something you decide to do over a couple of beers and pretzels."

King said companies that are ready to "grow up" and move toward an enterprise-class IT infrastructure should explore the z9. But mainframes present a set of complexities for which some small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) might not be prepared.

"One of the most important issues is exactly how much money and effort will it take them to get their staff trained to deal with a mainframe," King said. "A company running an x86 shop is not going to have on hand people who have any experience in mainframe processes."

Lock said SMBs should ask IBM resellers and business partners what extra resources and skill sets are needed to run a mainframe. "This is for companies in the upper mid-tier," Lock said. "The small ma and pa shop will probably not be able to use one of these beasts."

When the z9 salesman makes his pitch, an SMB should also ask, "How can I buy this? What financial model can you offer to make this something I can afford?" Lock suggested.

Lock said the z9 will be ideal for companies with diverse workloads on various machines that want to manage those workloads from a central platform.

"They should look at the applications they're running and identify the platforms they run on. If they are just running Windows X then they are not the place to start (using a mainframe). But if you have lots of Java, lots of Linux, and you're running database systems, CRM, sales force automation, anything like that, applications with specialized workloads, then (the z9) is something they should consider."

King said a mainframe such as the z9 offers several advantages to SMBs that might have data centers full of low-end x86 servers.

It's not something you decide to do over a couple of beers and pretzels.

Charles King, principal analyst, Pund-IT Research

"What the mainframe offers is a class of reliability, security and availability that's considerably beyond what most midsized businesses are used to, especially in the x86 space," King said.

King described the security capabilities of the z9 as "bulletproof" compared with x86 server technology.

The z9 Business Class also features an optional z9 Integrated Information Processor (zIIP), a specialized engine for running databases. Customers can add the zIIP processor to the z9 Business Class for an additional $95,000.

"Customers that are running workloads like ERP, business intelligence workloads that are coming into a mainframe, a good portion of that work can now be redirected to the zIIP specialty processor," IBM's Martin said. "You can more efficiently access data on the mainframe."

"A company focused on doing databases, this offers a little more power," King said. The zIIP will also free up capacity for companies using complex business applications and service-oriented architecture, he said.

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