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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 15th June 2010 15:54

Neon updates zPrime mainframe accelerator

IBM's lawyers combing source code

Neon Enterprise Software, the cheeky provider of the zPrime systems software that allows production work normally running on IBM z/OS mainframe engines to be dispatched to cheaper zIIP and zAAP co-processors on those mainframes, has tweaked the tool so it can now offload even more work to those cheaper engines.

The zPrime tool was announced in July 2009 and move workloads that would normally run on plain vanilla mainframe engines and the z/OS operating system for System z servers and dispatch some or all of the workloads to the System z Application Assist Processor (zAAP) for offloading Java and XML workloads (announced in September 2004) or the System z Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) to accelerate DB2 databases by offloading certain functions from the regular engines (sometimes called CPs) running z/OS and DB2. (The zIIPs were announced in June 2006).

The zIIPs and zAAPs cost roughly a quarter the price of regular mainframe engines, which is a big deal considering that IBM charges hundreds of thousands of dollars per core for mainframe capacity, and equally importantly do not incur metered software charges for systems software, like regular mainframe engines do. Dispatching work to specialty engines can save customers some big ol' mainframe bucks.

Which is why it was not at all surprising that IBM started flinging FUD at mainframe shops right after zPrime launched and then Neon ended up suing Big Blue in December 2009 in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, located in Austin, for unfair business practices and anticompetitive behavior.

This resulted in the absolutely predictable countersuit by IBM in January 2010 in the same court, where IBM claims zPrime is analogous to stealing cable, the software violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and compels customers to break their licensing agreements with Big Blue, among other allegations.

With zPrime 2.1, announced today, Neon says that up to 90 per cent of the CICS transaction monitoring transactions that would normally run on standard mainframe engines atop the z/OS operating system on System z mainframes from IBM can now be offloaded to specialty processors and that virtually all DB2 database workloads running on System z mainframes can be offloaded to zIIPs and zAAPs.

The zPrime tool does not require changes to the application or systems software - changing the former would be a pain in the neck and changing the latter would be illegal as far as Big Blue is concerned. IBM sought an injunction to prevent Neon from selling zPrime, but has not received it.

zPrime 2.1 also includes a new Scan tool allows mainframe administrators to better match workloads to specialty processor capacity, which is managed by another tool called Attach that tells CICS, DB2, and other transactions to run on zIIPs or zAAPs.

The idea is to maximize utilization on each zIIP or zAAP and to minimize engine count, as mainframe shops are used to doing given the outrageous prices they pay to acquire mainframe hardware and rent systems software from IBM. zPrime 2.1 no longer requires z/OS exits to enable the workloads. This is presumably important for legal as well as technical reasons, but in prior releases, IBM could not stop zPrime because to disable z/OS exits would shut down all kinds of mainframe applications that rely on these exits.

Neon says that zPrime 2.1 is also easier to install than the prior releases, and can be up and running in 30 minutes with no JCL changes, system exits, or z/OS restarts; the release is also compatible with zPrime 1.2, which presumably means that if you were using 1.2 you can upgrade to 2.1 without having to change anything in your system.

Through the end of last year, more than 1,500 mainframe shops had contacted the company, more than 200 shops have had thought about using zPrime enough to review their licenses with IBM, and 50 shops had put zPrime through the paces in their data centers. Today, Neon says eight companies have actually put zPrime into production, despite the lawsuits - which make ultra-conservative mainframe shops very jumpy.

"IBM's legal team has the zPrime source code, so IBM should have confirmed by now that our code does nothing IBM alleges," explained Lacy Edwards, chief executive officer at Neon, in a statement announcing zPrime 2.l. "We encourage mainframe customers who want to reduce costs to test zPrime and see for themselves how substantial the cost savings can be."

IBM has about 7,000 mainframe customers with maybe 10,000 mainframe footprints driving its $3bn to $4bn mainframe hardware business. So having 1,500 of them think of buying cheaper engines is a big deal. Particularly with mainframe sales dropping in the past couple of quarters in anticipation of the System z11 mainframes, due to be launched in the third quarter. IBM needs every mainframe sale it can get.

The lawsuits between Neon and IBM are moving at the normal glacial pace. Yesterday, US District Judge James Nowlin set out a schedule for the suits, with amended pleadings due by October 22, 2010; discovery due by December 16, 2011; motions due by January 27, 2012; and pretrial conference and jury selection set for March 12, 2012.

Under the former Bush administration, it would not be at all surprising to see IBM and Neon settle their case with IBM taking control of the zPrime code and relegating it to some dark dungeon in Poughkeepsie, New York. This is precisely how IBM dealt with the competitive threat to the mainframe business posed by clone mainframe maker Platform Solutions.

But with the Obama administration being more keen on antitrust concerns and both the US Department of Justice and European Commission pondering Big Blue's monopoly in the mainframe racket (at least for hardware that runs its own software) and French mainframe hardware emulator TurboHercules filing its own complaint against IBM in Europe over anticompetitive behavior, IBM has to proceed very carefully.

Correction: This story originally stated that the Attach interface inside of zPrime had hooks into the z/OS dispatcher. It does not. Neon says there are no such hooks and that "the zPrime Attach interface is enabled using documented IBM system services; those services allow the zPrime Attach interface to obtain control during task creation processing." ®

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