IBM Moves Security to the Next Level – on the Mainframe

In a recent press release, IBM announced that they are moving security to a new level, with “pervasively encrypted data, all the time at any scale”. That sounded cool and, after talks with IBM, I must admit that it is cool. However, it is “only” on their IBM Z mainframe system, specifically the IBM Z14.

By massively increasing the encryption capabilities on the processor and through a system architecture that is designed from scratch to meet the highest security requirements, these systems can hold data encrypted at any time, with IBM claiming support of up to 12 billion encrypted transactions per day. Business data and applications running on IBM Z can be better protected than ever before – and better than on any other platform.

One could argue that this is happening in a system environment that is slowly dying. However, IBM in fact has won a significant number of new customers in the past year. Furthermore, while this is targeted as of now at mainframe customers, there is already one service that is accessible via the cloud: a blockchain service where secure containers for the blockchain are operated in the IBM Cloud in various datacenters across the globe.

It will be interesting to see whether and when IBM will make more of these pervasive encryption capabilities available as a cloud service or in other forms for organizations not running their own mainframes. The big challenge here obviously will be end-to-end security. If there is a highly secure mainframe-based backend environment, but applications accessing these services through secure APIs from less secure frontend environments, there will remain a security risk. Unfortunately, other platforms don’t come with the same level of built-in security and encryption power as the new IBM Z mainframe.

Such a gap between what is available (or will be available soon) on the mainframe and what we find on other platforms is not new. Virtualization was available on the mainframe way before the age of VMware and other PC virtualization software started. Systems for dynamically authorizing requests at runtime such as RACF are the norm in mainframe environments, while the same approach and standards such as XACML are still struggling in the non-mainframe world.

With its new announcement, IBM on one hand again shows that many interesting capabilities are introduced on mainframes first, while also demonstrating a potential path into the future of mainframes: as the system that manages the highest security environments and maybe in future acts as the secure backend environment, accessible via the cloud. I’d love to see the latter.


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