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IBM targets energy-saving mainframes at Linux users

IBMs new generation of Linux-based mainframes can significantly reduce energy use for companies willing to replace x86 servers with proprietary systems.

Looking to capitalize on enterprises' growing focus on sustainability and energy saving, IBM has rolled out its next generation of Linux mainframes it claims reduces energy consumption by up to 75%.

The high-end version of the LinuxOne Emperor 4 server can scale to support tens of thousands of workloads in a single footprint, saving data center floor space by potentially replacing hundreds of x86-based servers.

While IBM is emphasizing the energy savings properties of the system, it has also placed a priority on performance. The 7-nanometer system holds up to 32 of IBM's new Telum processors, containing a total of 200 processor cores with built-in accelerators.

The accelerators are designed to speed AI applications and handle data compression tasks and advanced encryption, including protection against quantum computer attacks.

"We are seeing a perfect storm of challenges hitting, with digital transformation projects pulling CIOs and CTOs in many directions with sustainability often not getting the focus it deserves," said Marcel Mitran, CTO of IBM's Cloud Platform and LinuxONE. "This system addresses a number of challenges they face, allowing them to spend more time on sustainability."

This sentiment is backed up by a recent report from IBM's own research arm, the Institute for Business Value. That organization released a study showing that while 86% of users have sustainability strategies, only 35% of that number have begun to execute those plans.

While prospective users of Emperor 4 systems could find it easier to focus more on sustainability and energy savings, IBM still faces the challenge of getting users of x86-based servers to replace those systems with a system built with IBM's proprietary Telum processor.

IBM over the years has tried multiple times to convince users to replace a data center full of x86-based systems with both mainframes and its Power servers, with varying degrees of success.

Despite some of the price-performance benefits those proprietary systems offer users, more times than not they would stay with x86 servers because of the upfront costs involved in replacing servers or porting their existing applications.

"IBM may be somewhat successful with the logic that replacing thousands of servers with about 20 will save users on electricity costs and gain more [data center] floor space," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects Inc. "But this is not an opportunity I expect a lot of users to jump at."

Another analyst agreed with the idea that many veteran IT professionals will be hesitant to buy into IBM's strategy, having weighed the pros and cons of switching over to a proprietary IBM platform. But he gives the strategy a bit more hope, given how different users' enterprise computing environments have changed over the past decade.

"Linux has broader software support now, and you can't underestimate how containerization and Kubernetes computing models have taken hold," said Bob O'Donnell, president and chief analyst at Technalysis Research. "It may not become a mainstream approach, but it has broader appeal than their previous efforts."

The devasting effects rapid climate change has wrought on states such as California and Texas this summer could give IBM's strategy some momentum, as the former is on the verge considering rolling blackouts to conserve energy.

Potential rolling blackouts and other energy conservation measures in heavily populated states could apply added pressure to large enterprises, including major cloud providers, to look at alternative data center strategies.

If I'm a large enterprise sitting on old technology and, on top of that, I need to meet new sustainability goals, this [Emperor server] gives me new options I didn't necessarily have before.
Bob O'DonnellPresident, chief analyst, TECHnalysis Research

"If I'm a large enterprise sitting on to old technology -- and on top of that I need to meet new sustainability goals -- this [Emperor server] gives me new options I didn't necessarily have before," O'Donnell said.

What allows Emperor 4 to scale up and run workloads at sustained high density and increased capacity is the ability to turn on unused cores without increasing energy consumption and generating greenhouse gas emissions, according to IBM. The company also offers its Instana Observability service, allowing users to track energy consumption.

Asked if IBM plans to broaden out the potential audience for the system by delivering a version of Emperor with similar capabilities but running IBM's zOS operating system, Mitran said no.

"This is a Linux box tailored to meet the specific needs of the Linux [user] base," Mitran said. "With LinuxOne systems we typically introduce new technologies like solid state technology or NVMe that the Linux audience specifically needs."

The high-end model of Emperor 4 will be available this week, with entry level and midrange models available sometime in the first half of 2023.

As an Editor At Large with TechTarget Editorial, Ed Scannell is responsible for writing and reporting breaking news, news analysis and features focused on technology issues and trends affecting corporate IT professionals.

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