IBM has added security features to its top mainframe, the z990, also known as “T. Rex”. The machine, which IBM intends for hosting secure transaction processing, uses a combination of its own z/OS operating system and up to hundreds of hosted Linux servers.

The z990, which was launched in May, is currently top of IBM’s mainframe range. Built by IBM from silicon up, it can handle up to 450 milion transactions a day, or up to 13 billion transactions a day when configured in a cluster.

In a direct response to a jibe from Sun about dinosaurs, IBM code-named this machine T-Rex, and gave it the ability to host literally hundreds of virtual Linux servers. At three-quarters of a million dollars it obviously costs more than commodity Linux servers, but includes very sophisticated load-sharing and self-healing abilities.

As well as "clear key" encryption, the mainframe now has the option of "secure key" encryption, using a new PCIX Cryptographic Coprocessor (PCIXCC) which replaces the PCICC and CMOS cryptographic coprocessors that were previously available on mainframes such as the z900. As well as adding secure key encryption, the new coprocessor performs other crypto work more quickly.

IBM will also bring forward the release of a Trusted Key Entry (TKE) Workstation, which lets users enter Master Keys securely, for the z990.

“This is interesting for lots of reasons,” said James Governor of analyst firm RedMonk. “Given corporate concerns about security in the banking sector - which has hardly covered itself in security glory since networks started opening up - it makes sense for IBM to emphasise these capabilities.”

“In an environment where Accenture and so on will be pitching Microsoft Windows 2003 as a mainframe replacement and foundation for applications, IBM's continued focus on security can't hurt,” he added.

In the long term, one competitor for the zSeries will be from within IBM. The company’s other completely in-house system, the iSeries, also handles transactions well. “The iSeries absolutely screams though SSL, even without a dedicated processor,” said Governor. “Its performance on the SPECint benchmark is very impressive and certainly blows away the UNIX vendors.”

Mainframes make up about 17 percent of IBM’s revenue, so it is clearly important for the company to keep improving in this area.