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IBM’s T-Rex Hatching But Is Demand Ravenous?

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While the mainframe business was the only one of its hardware segments to contract in the first quarter, IBM nonetheless has big hopes for that business to contribute to the overall bottom line by the end of the year, industry experts say.That is because the Armonk, NY-based global computing giant is set to release the mighty “T-Rex,” codename for the Generation 8 (G8) mainframe, in a month. T-Rex will be the vendor’s most powerful mainframe to date, according to Phil Payne, research director with Isham Research. The product is due to be announced on May 13 and will ship late in Q2, and some believe it’s not a moment too soon.

“IBM’s mainframe competition today is vastly more dangerous than Amdahl or Hitachi ever were,” Payne said. “If the old-style PCMs won a deal, IBM still received the same software revenues and could easily displace the PCM system in its turn…Today, a mainframe customer lost to Sun or Hewlett-Packard today is lost forever.”

Even though the latest addition to the zSeries line hasn’t been released, it has already impacted the bottom line of IBM’s hardware business — negatively.

In its first quarterannouncement, IBM said that revenues from its zSeries line were down a meaty 16 percent from the previous year and cited a “combination of customer deferrals of IT decisions and the anticipated introduction of a new zSeries mainframe” as the reason. This contributed to IBM’s 1 percent decline in revenue for its hardware division, which totaled $5.8 billion.

But what can the IT world expect when the product is released? Gartner analyst Mike Chuba said he doesn’t expect quite the same bump to revenues to the hardware line as IBM saw from its last comparable zSeries release 2001, when “all the stars aligned for IBM.”

“Between Amdahl and HDS [Hitachi Data Systems] deciding they weren’t going to follow IBM into the 64-bit computing space, its hot product and pent-up demand, and the fact that it came after a lousy year in 2000, IBM got a nice revenue boost from that zSeries release,” Chuba told “I don’t see the demand as being as high this time unless they come out with some innovative features, something for the 1,000 or 2,000 MIPS shops.”

The product comes at a time when firms are ramping up lower-end models that have “mainframe-like” capabilities. Mid-ranged servers have become an attractive alternative because they can perform many of the functions of mainframes at a fraction of the cost, thanks to 64-bit processing capabilities of Unix and now the forthcoming Windows Server 2003 (and, as enthusiasts claim, even some flavors of Linux).

And when T-Rex is formally unveiled in May, it will hit the market around the same time as machines like Unisys’ new ES7000/500 series, which are equipped with the more powerful Datacenter edition of Windows Server 2003.

Chuba said he expects Sun and perhaps even HP to be champing at the bit to see if there will be a mention of the T-Rex codename in the release. Why? The dinosaur and extinction parallels, Chuba said. Raptor was the codename for the z800, and Sun snickered then. Regardless, Chuba expects serious competitive sniping.

T-Rex (also known as “Galileo” or G8) is primed for serving demanding applications for large data centers. It is expected to scale to 450 million instructions each second, or a third more than its major z900 mainframe, according to Payne. It will roll out with 16 processors under a single-system image, which means applications and data sets can be run across multiple processors.

G8 is the first update to IBM’s zSeries line since the z800 was introducedin early 2002. It will expand to 32 processors during the next two years and eventually support up to 64 processors. Parallel Sysplex, IBM’s architecture for making several mainframe processors to act as one unit, is now mature, meaning users can spread resources across many systems.

IBM, which expects to target about half of the 3,000 existing z800 and z900 customers with the G8, is very tight-lipped about any other details regarding the product. The company did not return calls seeking comment on this story. And most analysts contacted did not return calls or were cautious because of non-disclosure agreements.

But that didn’t stop Payne from discussing the G8. Payne is about to publish a critical note about the reduced “mission statement” for the initial systems, the analyst told A lot of “bits” for the initial release of the mainframe are not ready. He also said it remains uncertain that the revenues for the G8 will make up for the shortfall in the first part of the quarter.

Moreover, he anticipates the full functionality of G8 to take longer than planned, estimating that “another large chunk is planned for 3Q (September) 2004.”

“IBM’s reluctance to publish a credible roadmap for its most important users is thus somewhat perverse — though doubtlessly welcome in Santa Clara and Palo Alto,” Payne wrote in a recent research note.

The analyst added this may have strategic repercussions.

“Although G8 uses a lot of z900 technology, it is sufficiently different to require some investment in positioning — configuration and infrastructure — for effective exploitation. Ideally, potential users should have made appropriate provisions in their 2003 IT budgets, but it seems that most IBM non-disclosure briefings have been made at higher management levels and not to the technical staff who would realize the requirement.”

Chuba expects IBM to make those adjustments and add improvements, noting IBM has proven the G8 is 50 percent faster than the z900 in MIPS measurements. He also expects across-the-board upgrades in the “ities,” or scalability, availability, reliability and manageability.

“Sun and HP, but especially Sun, will take notice of this,” Chuba said. “Sun and HP will feel some pressure from a performance perspective. Probably more significant, is the emphasis the big consolidation vehicles are putting on pricing, which is where IBM has been aggressive. The thing to recognize with this, is that this will be targeted toward a niche market — high-end customers who make up the top 5-10 percent of the installed mainframe base.”

However specialized or exclusive, this is a lucrative niche that includes major phone companies and financial services firms.

As for the present and future, Payne said the G8 will become the current zSeries mainframe for at least three years, but that the company’s autonomic computing strategy will eventually do away with such features as the Tivoli System Automation for Linux because self-managing characteristics will be ubiquitous.

zSeries and IBM’s Linux Strategy

While few major research firms are commenting openly on the G8, Gartner Vice President and Research Director George Weiss recently made some prognostications for the zSeries line, as it pertains to IBM’s overall Linux strategy.

Weiss said that while the benefits of infusing Linux across its platforms is generally great, IBM z800 and z900 would gain broader market opportunities as a consolidated Web server platform. Big Blue’s embrace of Linux, Weiss said, paves the way for strong competitive positioning versus the likes of Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Dell.

“Even in high-end servers, where it appeared that Unix would erode mainframe market share, IBM has a new calling card with Linux for the zSeries,” Weiss said in a research note.

Still, Weiss urged customers not to get too carried away on the zSeries, urging them to make sure more functionality is proven.

“During the next 12 to 24 months, IBM will moderately succeed in deploying Linux applications on 20 percent to 30 percent of zSeries systems currently installed in IBM accounts, but we caution users against new zSeries installs for Linux applications until more application profiling and scaling are demonstrated.”

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