A Big Year For IBM And Z15

By Patrick Moorhead - August 31, 2020
IBM z15

This September will mark one year since IBM launched z15, the latest iteration of the company’s vaunted Z line of mainframes that stretches back to the 1960s. I’ve been watching the rollout with interest since launch (see my initial coverage here). IBM developed this generation specifically with security and data privacy at the top of mind, and IBM positioned the z15 as a cornerstone to its hybrid multi-cloud strategy. For the most part, that has borne out—in the year since launch, IBM has scored numerous wins for z15, bolstered z15 with additional cloud announcements, and helped many businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic storm. Today, one year in, I’d like to give a little retrospective on IBM and z15.

What is the big deal with z15?

Mainframes, essentially, are the huge powerhouse servers built for enterprises that require high uptime, high security, and fast and large transaction volumes. IBM has been making these for a long time, and the previous generation, the z14, was an impressive offering. Where the z15 shines, though, is in its security and privacy capabilities—privacy in particular. The z14 featured great security, with pervasive encryption, which is great for keeping bad actors out but does not tackle the issue of those who may intercept data between organizations and third parties—where many breaches occur.

The z15, on the other hand, introduced IBM’s Data Privacy Passports, a whole group of data-centric privacy controls, to the mainframe. One of the big differentiators under that umbrella was a feature called Trusted Data Objects, or TDOs, which assign protections to data that stay attached to it, wherever it migrates—to an x86 server, hybrid cloud, an IoT midpoint, a PC, or any mobile device. This is vastly different from the historical approach, in which data protection solutions exist in fragmented silos at various endpoints, leaving data largely unprotected when it is in transit between locations. Data Privacy Passports provides all the key management for these TDOs, which IBM says simplifies the implementation and management of these controls.

Additionally, Data Privacy Passports allow businesses to enforce a data privacy policy across their entire organization, with different tiers of users given different views of data. Meanwhile, TDOs can be leveraged to prevent collusion between data owners. Data consumption can also be tracked via Data Privacy Passports, giving organizations one centralized access point for auditing, and ensuring compliance.

Two other new security/privacy features that IBM is referring to as Confidential Computing, including IBM’s Hyper Protect Virtual Servers, which IBM says will safeguard customers’ Linux applications through their entire DevSecOps lifespan. Additionally, the company shared that it is extending its Cryptographic Technology Leadership up to 5,100 virtual HSMs—a move that IBM calls (and I agree) “the ultimate isolation of containers for cloud vendors.”

The z15 boasts several other improvements over the previous z14 generation. These include an increase in processor core count, from 170 in the last generation to 190; a 14% improvement in single-thread performance; a 25% increase in maximum system processing capacity; 25% more RAIM memory; as much as a 17-fold increase in compression throughput; 20% more I/O channels; and the ability to have up to four 19” racks.

On resiliency, one of the newer announcements around z15 is that IBM is expanding the market’s first System Recovery Boost technology to cover recovery actions across the Sysplex (a cluster of IBM z/OS mainframes working in concert as a single system image). IBM says this move will enable instant recovery, resulting in “ultimate uptime” for customers. Not only that—the company emphasizes that System Recovery Boost gives the average customer roughly double the capacity to support recovery activities.

A foothold in the cloud ecosystem

Across industries, enterprises are increasingly turning towards hybrid cloud models—some workloads are moved to the cloud, while other mission-critical, particularly data-sensitive applications are kept on-prem. As mentioned earlier, the September release of z15 is a part of IBM’s play to guarantee itself a seat at the hybrid multi-cloud table as more and more money is being thrown at it. Another important part of the company’s hybrid play was its adoption in May 2019 of a new cloud-like, pay-for-what-you-use consumption model for its on-prem infrastructure called Tailor Fit Pricing (see my coverage here). 

Additionally, IBM has continued to integrate cloud tools into its Z line. Around the same time z15 was announced, IBM also shared that it was bringing Red Hat’s OpenShift tooling and feature set to its mainframes and LinuxONE offerings. With this integration, developers gain the ability to deploy z/OS apps on OpenShift, with no particular need for specialized z/OS skills. 

Last month, IBM unveiled Wazi Workspaces, covered here—an offering built on Red Hat CodeReady Workspaces, for the purpose of simplifying the onboarding process for new z/OS developers and enabling cloud-native containerized development. The most significant potential impact of Wazi lies in the fact that developers can utilize their IDE of choice when developing for z/OS—whether that’s Red Hat CodeReady, an in-browser OpenShift-native developer workspace, a desktop IDE, or an Eclipse-based IDE like the IBM Z Open Development solution. In the past, when learning their way around a new platform, developers would have been faced with the daunting task of learning a whole new development ecosystem. IBM designed Wazi to eliminate that time-consuming barrier to entry, which should accelerate app development and ecosystem growth for z/OS.

Just last week, IBM also unveiled several summer updates for Power Systems that promise to strengthen IBM’s hybrid strategy further. Perhaps most notably, the company announced the availability of Red Hat’s Ansible on Power Systems—an open-source software that IBM says will manage and automate tasks for AIX and IBM i endpoints (for which the company has already established over 20 automations, with 50 more planned this year alone). It’s worth noting that Z mainframes can also be managed with Ansible in exactly the same way.

Taken all together, these developments further flesh out IBM’s software ecosystem, which makes z15 that much more appealing to enterprises dipping their toes into the hybrid multi-cloud current. 

Wins and momentum

While all this news around Z systems and Power Systems looks great on paper, the real test of a successful strategy is, of course, reflected in the bottom line and in enterprise adoption rates. And if IBM’s claims bear out, then Z appears to be doing great. It is purportedly showing strong growth in workloads and the migration to z15. According to the company, growth in new workloads helped IBM ship the highest MIPS in history in the fourth quarter of 2019. The number of Linux MIPS installed has also grown approximately 55% from the second quarter of last year to this year. While I would rather know the number of frames or sockets as well, MIPS shows that z15 is being used a lot. For that matter, IBM says a whopping 92 of the top 100 businesses utilizing Z are running Linux on it. The company also shared that 75% of the world’s 20 largest banks (by market capitalization) have purchased the new z15 servers, while many of them have deployed IBM’s “pervasive encryption.” I would call these numbers a big win. 

I also must give attention to z15 helping the company have much better earnings the past few quarters when its services division were struggling:

  •  Fiscal Q2/2020: IBM Z revenue grew 69%
  •  Fiscal Q1/2020: IBM Z revenue grew 59%
  •  Fiscal Q4/2019: IBM Z revenue grew 62%

This is phenomenal growth any way you slice it. Sure, this is cyclical, and there are sharp decline quarters before this, but I think the z15 deserves kudos for showing three quarters of bright spots for the overall IBM earnings report.

Nationwide Building Society, UKs 2nd largest mortgage lender

I had the chance to talk with a few IBM z15 “clients,” and it was a real eye-opener. As many of these customers are in regulated industries, they are not too fond of going on the record. 

I can talk about an awesome conversation I had with Gary Delooze, CIO of Nationwide Building Society, the UK’s second-largest mortgage lender, and the fifth-largest bank in terms of accounts. 

Nationwide is also z15 customer, one of the first. Nationwide doesn’t grant many interviews, so it was a privilege to talk to the CIO of one of the most innovative (if not the most) UK financial institutions, first with ATM iris recognition, the first wearable banking app, and a pioneer in using blockchain for production workloads. I was impressed with Delooze’s description of its hybrid, multi-cloud environment including, of course, a brand new IBM z15 replacing a z13. Delooze splits public cloud time between Azure and AWS and performs a lot of real-time work on x86 boxes in its branches. At the center of its core banking batch apps and data is the z15 running IBM DB2. He has some “old mid-range” system running SAP and real-time apps and is in the process of moving off of those to leverage the z15 to keep all the data in sync between DB2 on the z15 and Mongo-based, branch caching boxes using Kafka data streaming.    

While Nationwide is a technology innovator, Delooze reinforced what I have heard from many regulated-industry CIOs, and that is that security and privacy are paramount to his operation. The IBM z15 is a no-brainer to me as I view the platform as the most secure and private on the planet for regulated data. 

Many enterprise calls are ended by the client dishing on the vendor, but Delooze was quite complementary on IBM.  He said, “IBM did a phenomenal job getting us up to speed on what the platform could and would do.” No transitions are perfect, they never are, and Delooze did talk about some dynamic partition challenges, but said IBM eventually fixed the “bug” that was unique to the nationwide configuration. Delooze acknowledged that Nationwide was one of the first z15 customers on a set of new microcode and this is to be expected on his “bespoke” configuration. As much as I baited Delooze, he was quite complimentary of IBM, the IBM z15 and the support the company provided.

It was nice to see such an innovative company like Nationwide Building Society embrace the IBM z15.

IBM and COVID-19

Lastly, one cannot write a column about the tech industry today without devoting at least a tiny bit of time on the impact of COVID-19, and what efforts (if any) the companies have been making to support businesses and workers and help mitigate the fallout. The pandemic has comprised a large part of the year since z15’s launch and has no doubt been at the top of mind for IBM the last five months. The good thing about IBM’s strategy; in this context, is Z’s cloud-like elasticity—customers can flip a switch to gain additional capacity without any IBM intervention necessary. The company says that the second quarter of 2020 saw four times as much temporary activations of general-purpose capacity than it did in Q2 of the previous year—capacity that, if activated simultaneously, would be enough to process as much as 2.9 trillion additional secure transactions a day.

Wrapping up

All said and told, it’s been quite a good year for IBM and its hybrid cloud ambitions. In z15, it brought a new, powerful mainframe to market with the enterprise-grade security and privacy necessary to ease the minds of those would-be hybrid cloud pilgrims. This strategy of bridging the gap between private, on-prem infrastructure, and the public cloud is a unique one that has a lot of potential in my opinion. IBM continues to build upon z15 with new cloud-native tools and other updates that make it an even stronger contender for hybrid cloud consideration. I’ll continue to watch with interest—apparently, not even a global pandemic could derail this train.

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.

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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.