Building innovative employee digital experience on the classic strengths of the mainframe

Published on 15-Jul-2013

"Given the size and rapid growth of our social business environment, and given the frequent need to introduce new functionality, the mainframe is the perfect platform." - Deak Shearer, Certified Architect, On-Demand Workplace, IBM


Computer Services, Professional Services

Deployment country:
United States

High Availability , Social Business, System z Software, Transforming Business, Virtualization


In today’s knowledge economy, the exchange and enrichment of ideas through social business is a major generator of new value. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, enterprises that can mobilize and develop their internal information assets will maximize their ability to innovate ahead of the competition.

Business need:
With more than 400,000 employees generating vast amounts of information, IBM’s competitive edge in the knowledge economy depends on its ability to capture, share and generate value from all of this information. For IBM and other enterprises, these abilities will be a necessity for long-term success.

IBM created an employee-facing digital experience using IBM Connections and IBM® WebSphere® Portal software, running on Linux for System z virtual machines across four partitions on two IBM zEnterprise® 196 servers. This integrated software environment enables employees to build communities around common interests and topics, share and find information, and locate the right internal resources to tackle any challenge.

Robust and flexible IBM mainframe enables rapid and non-disruptive deployment of new social tools and functionality. Personalizes information and facilitates sharing and searching, helping global employees focus on the most important items. Using the mainframe for social business saves an estimated 60 to 75 percent on the cost of a distributed solution.

Case Study

In today’s knowledge economy, the exchange and enrichment of ideas through social business is a major generator of new value. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, enterprises that can mobilize and develop their internal information assets will maximize their ability to innovate ahead of the competition.

IBM is not only developing social technologies for other businesses, but also integrating them into its own global working practices. With more than 400,000 employees worldwide generating and sharing enormous volumes of data, there are almost limitless opportunities for IBM to streamline processes, develop new business insight faster, and get better at identifying and meeting client needs.

Donn Jasura, IBM Workplace Senior Program Manager, says, “We call it ‘social business’ today, but in the future it will just be ‘business’: we’re embedding social and collaborative interactions into the daily fabric of work, and transforming the way we think about and share knowledge. The biggest hurdle to overcome is always cultural change, but we also knew that our existing social platform was not sufficiently fast, flexible or scalable to support our long-term ambitions.”

IBM System z for exceptional employee experiences
With increasing volumes of documents, wikis and blogs spread across its global information infrastructure, IBM recognized that it faced a growing challenge. While all of this structured and unstructured information undoubtedly represented an enormously valuable asset to the business, the rate of growth meant that it was becoming harder to find the right information at the right time and use it to generate business value.

“We had growing masses of valuable data that were locked away and not used, which was inefficient and meant that we were not capitalizing on the huge knowledge, experience and expertise of our global workforce,” comments Jasura. “We wanted to make all of that information available and easily searchable from within a dynamic set of user communities, and to provide social profiles that would make it easy for people to find each other and share their knowledge and skills.”

He adds, “To address this challenge, we deployed our own software—IBM Connections and IBM WebSphere Portal—running on the best platform for the task: IBM System z®.”

Tackling scale and change
IBM runs the vast majority of its digital experience environment on the IBM System z platform, recently upgrading to the IBM zEnterprise 196 server. IBM Connections and IBM WebSphere Portal run on virtual Linux servers hosted on four IBM z/VM® logical partitions (LPARs) across two physical z196 servers for added resilience. This environment will soon grow to encompass six LPARs across three z196 frames. There are separate IBM DB2® databases for WebSphere Portal and for the application databases (user files and content).

“Given the size and rapid growth of our social business environment, and given the frequent need to introduce new functionality, the mainframe is the perfect platform,” says Deak Shearer, Certified Architect, On-Demand Workplace, IBM. “We are constantly changing and updating the portal, and using the powerful cloning capabilities of z/VM, we can do that rapidly and in a way that causes no disruption to our users.”

As a recent step in the evolution of its social business platform, IBM upgraded to the latest version of WebSphere Portal and is now integrating Portal with Connections. “We’re bringing the key Connections content directly into our internal portal, making it easier for people to find and share the information they need right on their personalized employee portal,” says Jasura. “It’s all about bringing the right information to people more easily, by applying personalization rules. It’s introducing social business but also organizing the information to increase user efficiency.”

Rapid release of new functionality
The employee portal team has also recently moved to an active/passive setup in which the entire digital experience environment is duplicated on different partitions across the two z196 servers. At any given time, one of the two logical systems actively serves internal users, leaving the other available as a staging and final testing environment for the next application releases. When the testing of new functionality is complete on the passive side, IBM can simply and seamlessly switch their roles, so that the passive side with its new functionality becomes the active site serving users with zero downtime, versus the 12 to 36 hours downtime typically required for a major release.

“With On/Off Capacity on Demand (On/Off CoD) on the z196, we can switch processing resources on and off as we require, so that we are not paying for unused resources,” says Shearer. “The flexibility of the mainframe means that we can run this parallel development environment at very low cost as we’re only using fractions of a single CPU on the passive side. And with this setup, we can rapidly and seamlessly release new functionality—we just run a script on a Saturday that switches from one to the other. If all is still well after three days—during which time we have the option to fail back to the original active environment—then we clone the new active environment and start developing again.”

In preparation for the migration to the latest versions of WebSphere Portal, IBM built a single virtual server and then cloned it more than 20 times to host the various components of the system, saving considerable time and effort versus building each server from scratch.

“We built the new IBM WebSphere Portal environment—a huge, complex system of databases—got it all up and running, then just flipped the switch to bring it into production over the weekend,” recalls Jasura. “IBM System z allows you to do that without glitches and very expediently—with our complex infrastructure, that reduced the complexity of our major deployment immensely.”

The ability to clone entire virtual systems at the file-system level is also beneficial when it comes to troubleshooting, as Shearer explains: “The first time we used the clone function was when we were having a performance issue on a test system. In less than a day, we cloned the system, brought it back up on another partition, and handed it over to our colleagues on the software support team so that they could reproduce the issue and get to work on debugging it.”

“As the social solution grows, and as more and more people get involved, our deployments were becoming very lengthy,” adds Jasura. “We can now run a simple proxy script and 15 minutes later it’s done in the background with no user impact. That’s an extremely powerful benefit for this kind of environment, where you need to make frequent changes. For other companies looking to build better social business capabilities, our experience suggests that the IBM mainframe certainly has to be on the shortlist.”

Managing the growth of social
The Connections environment at IBM is growing extremely rapidly. The number of unique visitors doubled over the past year, and file storage is growing at 152 percent annually. There are also a large and growing number of points of integration through public APIs and custom widgets. Even the rate of growth is increasing, as the portal is aiming to be the front-end for all key employee activity at IBM, and the entry point for the information and tools that IBM employees need. The value comes in providing social capabilities that are integrated and presented in the context of each employee’s role.

In the past, managing the growth of the employee portal was complex and hard to predict. The team had to plan its capital expenditure years in advance, and long lead times were required to procure and deploy new physical servers. As the application grew, the team was also fast running out of floorspace. “With System z, we can increase the system capacity much more quickly when needed,” says Jasura.

He adds, “Considering the most recent migration, asking ‘what if you didn’t have the mainframe?’ is almost like asking ‘what if you didn’t have computers?’—it would have taken us three years instead of eight months. We now have better performance for a much larger number of users. Every time we can shave even fractions of a second off delivering a page to users, that will scale up to huge time and productivity savings across thousands of users and millions of page views.”

The successful deployment of the upgraded employee digital experience was in itself a validation of both the mainframe and the social tools. “With Portal, we successfully jumped two software levels for a system that is visible to more than 400,000 people daily,” says Jasura. “We used the new collaborative tools to organize and manage the infrastructure upgrade program, as well as managing other application adoptions that are part of the employee portal. This really helped us keep the pace moving quickly to complete so much work in a short time period. We handle all tasks and document everything related to software projects using our IBM social tools and Rational.”

New opportunities
IBM is embracing the new social capabilities enabled by its System z solution right from the highest levels of management. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty posts internal videos to communicate with employees, for example, after major events such as quarterly earnings reports. Employees have the opportunity to comment in the Connections Blog, and those comments are used and discussed by the CEO. The next step will be to provide social capabilities in context to other applications and tools that employees need to do their jobs.

“The employee portal enables senior managers to really engage with the rest of the company,” says Jasura. “People can post comments and have discussions directly in response to new videos or blog posts, and in this way we can easily generate and promote valuable new ideas that would otherwise just get lost in the background noise.”

The IBM employee digital experience is highly personalized and customized, presenting different information and tools depending on each user’s job role, the information preferences they choose to set, and their organizational role. In a new legal application being developed based on IBM WebSphere Content Manager, lawyers viewing certain articles see additional confidential content not visible to non-legal job roles. This personalization is one of the keys to the portal’s value, as well as users seeing only the content and links that are most relevant to them.

Jasura says: “Once you have the right platform, the bigger challenge in social business is actually changing people’s behavior so that you can take full advantage of all the possibilities that are now open to you. For IBM, it’s all about building dynamic global communities, backed by social tools that allow users to find the information they’re looking for, to share their own expertise and to generate new ideas through new interactions. This is powering the ongoing globalization of our business.”

Ideal platform for social
IBM certainly believes that the mainframe is the right platform for an exceptional digital experience and social business. The two z196 servers effectively act as a private cloud, presenting to the portal administrators flexible virtual servers running Linux. These administrators do not require any mainframe skills—those at IBM have a background in UNIX, and were quickly able to adapt to Linux—and there are no additional costs for training.

For businesses that have an existing collaboration or social environment spread across dozens of physical servers, as IBM did, the mainframe is an ideal platform for consolidation. Within each System z footprint, IBM can create hundreds or thousands of virtual servers, each tuned to a different social business workload. IBM also runs a large number of other mission-critical workloads on the same System z infrastructure, and the shared administration for all of these environments produces significant cost savings versus distributed infrastructure.

“When our requirements change, we can reconfigure the virtual servers on the mainframe in a matter of minutes,” says Shearer. “Some of the servers in our social environment require two processors, while the database servers require up to 10 processors; we can flexibly assign and reassign the pool of virtual resources to meet these requirements. In the past, we had to buy specific hardware for each requirement, and we would typically end up with too many resources on one system even as we were running out of resources on another. The System z acts like a cloud, giving us a completely flexible set of resources that we can orchestrate to meet our changing needs.”

Factoring in all costs over five years, IBM estimates that the Linux on System z solution will save 60 to 75 percent over a distributed alternative. This includes savings on hardware acquisition, electricity, software licenses, connectivity and labor. The low labor costs are largely down to the legendary reliability of the platform.

“We effectively have zero unplanned downtime on the mainframe,” says Jasura. “Social business is already important to IBM, and it will become absolutely critical in the next few years, so that kind of stability is a requirement. With IBM Connections and IBM WebSphere Portal running on the IBM zEnterprise 196 servers, we have the performance, scalability and reliability we need to take the next steps in social business.”

Products and services used

IBM products and services that were used in this case study.

System z: zEnterprise 196 (z196)

DB2 for Linux, z/VM, WebSphere Portal, z/OS, IBM Connections

Operating system:

Legal Information

© Copyright IBM Corporation 2013 IBM Corporation Software Group Route 100 Somers, NY 10589 Produced in the United States of America July 2013 IBM, the IBM logo,, DB2, System z, WebSphere, z/VM, and zEnterprise are trademarks of International Business Machines Corp., registered in many jurisdictions worldwide. Other product and service names might be trademarks of IBM or other companies. A current list of IBM trademarks is available on the web at “Copyright and trademark information” at Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds in the United States, other countries, or both. UNIX is a registered trademark of The Open Group in the United States and other countries. This document is current as of the initial date of publication and may be changed by IBM at any time. Not all offerings are available in every country in which IBM operates. The client examples cited are presented for illustrative purposes only. Actual performance results may vary depending on specific configurations and operating conditions. THE INFORMATION IN THIS DOCUMENT IS PROVIDED “AS IS” WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING WITHOUT ANY WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND ANY WARRANTY OR CONDITION OF NON-INFRINGEMENT. IBM products are warranted according to the terms and conditions of the agreements under which they are provided. ZSC03174-USEN-00