Is there still life in the mainframe?

With a new low-cost model and support for service oriented architectures, IBM is aiming to bolster the mainframe’s appeal for both existing and new users.

With a new low-cost model and support for service oriented architectures, IBM is aiming to bolster the mainframe’s appeal for both existing and new users.

IBM is breathing new life into the mainframe with initiatives to woo new users and wow existing ones. But what advantages does the platform offer, and is there a business case for adoption? 

IBM’s initiatives to boost the mainframe include rolling out lower-cost mainframes, releasing tools to help users build service oriented architectures (SOA) on the mainframe, and working with universities to raise awareness of mainframe skills.

IBM has released the third generation of its lower-cost mainframe for small and medium-sized enterprises. The System z9 Business Class mainframe (z9 BC) is priced from about £53,000. Targeted at health care and retail users, as well as other mid-market companies, the z9 BC mainframe can run hundreds of virtual servers, but its power consumption is equivalent to 27 Dell Poweredge 2850 servers, according to IBM.

The z9 BC follows the mid-market z800, which came out in 2002, and the z890 in 2004. “The z800 and z890 have been extremely successful in bolstering the mid-range and giving us a tool to target customers. We hope the z9 BC will continue this success,” said IBM systems consultant Doug Neilson.

Neilson said IBM had gained 200 new customers in the past few years, but declined to go into specifics. He added that very few of the users have moved from another supplier, so most customers are new to the mainframe.

Most of them are consolidating 40 or 50 Unix servers onto a mainframe to run all kinds of commercial applications: from enterprise resourcing planning and customer relationship management, to infrastructure applications like file and print, and web services, according to Neilson.

“In terms of growth, at the end of 2005, that final quarter was 30% higher than the previous year, in terms of raw capacity shipped. The fourth quarter saw our biggest revenues in terms of capacity since 1989,” said Neilson.

Mark Lillycrop, chief executive of Arcati Research, said, “There is still a lot of life in the architecture, and no sign of larger companies moving away. The issue is how to attract more customers (and hence new blood) at the lower end (sub-1,000 million instructions per second), where there is more direct competition.

“This is where the £53,000 z9 BC plays such an important role, as it has brought the entry-level price down to a very affordable level. It also allows smaller customers to upgrade in a more gradual and flexible way than earlier offerings.”

IBM’s new tools to help developers create “services-ready” Java, Visual Basic, Cobol and PL/I applications for the mainframe will go a long way to reviving mainframe investments and bringing in fresh blood, said Lillycrop.

“With the new [web services] tools, IBM is pushing the technical complexity down to a lower level, so that developers’ existing skills can be focused on the business application rather than on the characteristics of the platform,” he said.

This will also help to combat the issue of having an aging and dwindling pool of mainframe specialists in the workforce, said Lillycrop.

“The question should not be how much life is left in the mainframe. Rather, how can organisations with large investments in the mainframe ensure that in today’s agile business world the mainframe is part of a flexible, well integrated IT organisation?” said Stuart McGill, vice-president of marketing at Micro Focus, which specialises in legacy application integration.

The short answer, according to McGill, is the use of SOA and web services, and in IBM’s case these are delivered through its application server platform Websphere, and applications such as CICS – the popular IBM mainframe transaction management system – and IMS – IBM’s database management system for the mainframe.

However, companies will first have to embrace the idea of legacy mainframe extension, said McGill.

“Putting in place the tooling to support this strategy, however, is not something that companies have been quick to adopt, owing in part to the complexity of the mainframe tools to support these initiatives,” he said.

Meanwhile, high-end Itanium-based servers, and mid-range Unix and enterprise grids are creeping in as an alternative to the mainframe for a range of processing tasks.

For the larger enterprises that have invested in mainframes, they will most likely continue to use them, not least because they have a long history of high performance, security and reliability.

Meanwhile, the likes of Sun, with its enterprise grid, and Microsoft, with its Windows Compute Cluster Server, are starting to lure small and medium-sized firms with high-performance computing systems.

Although these do not offer direct competition to the mainframe, they illustrate the move away from the mainframe for many processing jobs.

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