People: The secret sauce in IBM Z

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The secret to the IBM Z mainframe’s success might not be immediately apparent. But look behind its groundbreaking features and you’ll find a global network of collaboration, from system developers in Poughkeepsie, New York, to board designers in Böeblingen, Germany. They are working directly with our clients to ensure that critical requirements are being captured.

Releasing a new IBM Z generation is a huge group endeavor, and all of our teams worldwide are proud to be part of it. In particular, the 20-member Germany-based team was responsible for designing the electronic boards that house the IBM Z processor chip, and the team in New York—approximately 100 professionals—handled the mechanical, power, I/O and thermal aspects of the system.

Geographically, these two teams worked in time zones six hours apart, and they regularly used collaboration tools to engage. Although they were brought together using different routes, the German team’s lead, Hubert Harrer, and the lead in New York, John Torok, discovered they have much in common. Harrer’s title is Senior Technical Staff Member (STSM), packaging, system hardware development, IBM Systems, and Torok’s title is STSM, IBM Z packaging and integration lead engineer, IBM Systems.

Bringing fresh air to the project

Harrer got his start in research. He began working at Böeblingen after completing his PhD thesis on cellular neural networks and a postdoc assignment at the University of California, Berkeley. When he can find the time, Harrer enjoys the outdoors including hiking, Nordic skiing and paragliding in the Alps or the Black Forest. And in addition to travel with his family, Harrer also enjoys listening to live jazz and 1980s-era music. He has been a technical lead for IBM Z electronic processor packaging since 2000, and he says that each system iteration is very different from previous ones, always presenting new challenges and opportunities. “I never could do a routine job, doing the same work over and over again,” Harrer says.

From an early age, Torok—also an outdoors enthusiast—has been a motorsports buff, and he parlayed his passion into a brief career in competitive snowmobile racing. He says that competing as a driver-mechanic allowed him to “define my own destiny, and for me it fueled a natural move to mechanical engineering that likewise requires hands-on diligence.” Snowmobiling is still a favorite winter pastime for Torok, but he says these days “hardware is ‘king.’ Seeing the shapes that originate in our 3-D software tool materialize into real parts first assembled by our team never grows old.” But when he has downtime, Torok also enjoys summer beach trips, wine tasting and the fall football season.

Applying the power of perseverance

The leads’ shared enthusiasm for tackling technical challenges steered the Germany and New York teams’ combined contribution to enabling the pervasive encryption that is a hallmark of the latest IBM Z release. The industry’s fastest microprocessor powers this encryption and supports more than 12 billion encrypted transactions per day on a single system. Achieving this performance required using more than 300 watts per chip, and managing that power level while keeping voltage spikes from interfering with processor speed was a tall order.

Applying the same perseverance required to race snowmobiles and paraglide past obstacles, the teams kept the voltage stable and electronic noise under control—not an easy effort when handling processors that change electrical current demands constantly on a nanosecond time scale. Their efforts also helped deliver more memory for analytics and machine learning.

Finding the fun in problem resolution

The worldwide teams responsible for the board, chip, mechanical, memory and thermal parts of the IBM Z program used common databases within IBM’s internal network to easily exchange results. They also used different toolsets depending on what they each developed, but they had the ability to share files across these varied tools to solve challenges and deliver client value.

Chip engineers know that relying on Moore’s Law to achieve more throughput from advances in the processor alone grows increasingly challenging. It involves the system from end to end and calls for collective design work across the entire stack that is highly complex. “It’s all about looking at each problem from various angles,” says Torok. “Every problem always has a solution, but rarely does one idea get you there. Exploring the options to get to the solution is the true fun in the job.”

Learn more about IBM Z and the latest enhancements in the IBM z14 mainframe.

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