It was once the preserve of large enterprises and government departments, but the mainframe seems to be going downmarket, incorporating novel applications that previously would have been deployed on bread-and-butter Intel blade servers. At the same time, IBM is making headway in China and the emerging markets, showing that Big Iron is still compelling, especially when existing applications can be licensed and adapted for different geographies.
Essentially, IBM's strategy for the zSeries is to make it a hybrid architecture, for running Intel, power and mainframe-based applications in a single box. Its latest machine, the Model 196-96, is a 96-processor, two-rack mainframe, combined with four racks for Power 7, System X and a database accelerator engine.
The machine is a datacentre in a box, but IBM has bigger plans for the mainframe, with the development of one node to control them all.
Ray Jones is vice-president of worldwide zSeries software. He is Mr Big, in terms of the mainframe.
In China, Jones hopes IBM can help simplify the banking system. When he was in China a few years ago, it would take four bank clerks two hours to count the cash for a rental deposit. "How do you know if you are being skimmed?" he asks. For Jones, banking in China is about branch office automation.
The Chinese transit system is also being automated, thanks in part to the Italian Ticketing Rail system. IBM has a licence to the source code and China now has a big mainframe capable of running ticketing. "We are fork-lifting Western innovation in China, changing the language, adapting it and scaling it," Jones said.
A few years back, IBM launched a low-cost mainframe for the Chinese market, priced to compete with $3,000 Intel-based blade servers. "China started small and has grown."
Interestingly, Jones hinted that the mainframe may even be used to track and monitor internet use in China.
Even the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia will be mainframe users. "They don't need credit cards yet, but when they do, the Namibian government has access to a mainframe datacentre run from Johannesburg."
In Italy, the University of Bari has developed a mainframe application for fishermen, which has now been adapted for winemakers.
The fishing application uses a touch-screen installed on boats to determine the type of fish caught. The fishermen can then determine market demand for the fish instantaneously and begin an electronic auction.
If the price falls below the lowest accepted bid, the fish are thrown back or redirected to a non-profit organisation such as a soup kitchen. If the price is acceptable, the system automatically provides the necessary distribution between boxes to allow the fish to be packed before the boat arrives at the port. The solution will be available on the zCloud to allow other fish markets access to the application.
Far from being dead, the zSeries mainframe is very much alive and fishing.