Hardware Today: Mainframes Are Here to Stay

Tuesday Feb 21st 2006 by Drew Robb

No longer going the way of the dinosaur, mainframes have found a solid and growing niche. What does the future hold?

In the past decade, mainframe computers have taken a back seat to distributed systems, which experienced explosive growth. Some in the industry have even gone so far as to sound the death knell of the breed. Yet far from being put out to pasture, the mainframe is now enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

The mainframe, in fact, is moving out beyond its traditional areas of strength of bulk data processing and financial transactions. In some cases, it is being used as a hub for the enterprise infrastructure to enhance security, improve manageability, and raise overall availability. Mainframes can also be used to host multiple operating systems, and they can run all of the major software packages.

According to Gartner, the mainframe gained 16 percent of market share in the high-end server category since 2001. During the same period, more mainframe MIPS (millions of instructions per second) were shipped than in the previous 36 years.

"Predictions on the death of the mainframe have clearly been incorrect. The mainframe has been around for 40 years, and it will be around for another 40 years." — Colette Martin, program director for System z9, IBM

"Predictions on the death of the mainframe have clearly been incorrect," says Colette Martin, IBM's program director for System z9. "The mainframe has been around for 40 years, and it will be around for another 40 years."

IBM's big iron has been around for 40 years. Mainframe technology has been around a bit longer. It dates back to Unisys' UNIVAC-1, which predicted Eisenhower's landslide in the 1952 election.

IBM Is Big Iron

There are five basic IBM zSeries models: 800, 890, 900, 990, and the z9. IBM unveiled the z9 in the summer of 2005, following a three-year, $1.2 billion development project. The z9 can virtualize hundreds of software applications. It can perform up to 1 billion transactions per day, provide on/off capacity on demand, and scale up to 54-way. It uses the 16-chip IBM Multichip Module as a processor. Logical partitions, known as LPARs, can be used to run multiple operating systems, including the z/OS, z/OS.e, OS/390, Linux on zSeries, z/VM, TPF, VSE/ESA, zVSE and zTPF. All major databases and enterprise transaction processing environments run on the new mainframes, including CICS, IMS, WebSphere Application Server, DB2, and Oracle.

"IBM is starting to get the message," says John Abbot, an analyst with the New-York-based 451 Group. "Mainframes may still be the best platforms for customers who require 100 percent data integrity, but they also need to run and manage open systems software."

The z9 has double the performance (up to 600 MIPS) and memory (up to 512 GB) of its predecessor, the z990 mainframe. It also has twice as many available logical partitions — 60.

"The mainframe role is no longer that of a stand-alone server," says Martin. "Customers want to use them to better manage their infrastructure."

Martin says the mainframe can be used as a hub across the enterprise for security and data serving, workload management, and business reliance. As a result, some enterprises are reconsidering the mainframe as an enterprise platform. Martin confesses, however, that the Intel and Unix faithful are not beating down the mainframe doors — at least not yet.

"If someone is comfortable with the technology they use, there is something to be said for that," Martin says. "I certainly don't expect everyone to put every workload on the mainframe."

Mainframe Challenges

IBM faces challenges despite its z9 accomplishments. User enterprises generally do not like "rip and replace," especially when their software works well and the hardware doesn't break down. Moreover, the aging nature of the mainframe programmer is considered by many to be an Achilles heel. Recent estimates of the mainframe workforce place the numbers at around 100,000. However, more than half are well into their fifties and will likely retire within a decade. As a result, IBM is investing heavily in a program to groom 20,000 zSeries-trained technical staff in the next four years.

But this may not be enough to get the mainframe back into the IT spotlight.

"New and more customer friendly pricing and licensing models will be crucial," analyst Abbot says. "Current users won't pay the sort of premium that they have paid in the past."

Another analyst wonders whether there will be enough customers to make it all worthwhile, especially for enterprises that do not use mainframe computer systems.

"I don't believe IBM has put forth a value proposition for these systems that would convince a non-mainframe customer to give it a try," says analyst Dan Olds of Gabriel Consulting. "IBM will be somewhat confined to primarily selling into their installed base — a large group of customers to be sure, but not enough to drive significant revenue gains."

IBM hopes to attract new business via its heavy investment in security and data management features. Master encryption keys for the z9, for example, are stored in a tamper-resistant package that zeroes out data to prevent an intruder from physically capturing it. Another security enhancement concerns the acceleration of secure transmissions when transporting data to an alternate location.

Big Blue is also planning for the future. Easier mainframe system management products include the Integrated Facility (for Linux) and an updated version of IBM's Virtualization Engine (2.0). Further, the company has developed several specialized processors to widen the platform's range. The z9 Application Assist Processor (zAAP), for example, allows the deployment of Java workloads on an engine with no additional IBM software licensing charges. The z9 Integrated information Processor (zIIP), on the other hand, is aimed at ERP and other mission-critical systems that access data on the mainframe.

Martin indicates that these advances are having the desired effect. In 2005, she says, 60 percent of mainframe revenues were driven by new workloads. Linux, in particular, appears to have revitalized the mainframe by bringing lower costs and industry standards.

What about upgrades to aging big iron? Mainframe users must make the decision between sticking with what they have or moving to a modern machine — and the options are narrowing. Plug compatibles, for example, are no longer an option, as Fujitsu and Hitachi both pulled out of this area since IBM revamped its mainframe architecture. Martin says, however, that if a company has the z900 or z990 and wants to shift to a z9, there is a financially viable upgrade path. Some software elements, she notes, can be upgraded at no charge.

What Competition?

Unlike the other areas of IBM's server empire where competition abounds, the mainframe space tends to suffer from a lack of competition. Hitachi does have a viable mainframe, but it has made little impact in terms of market share. Similarly, a few small companies boast products with mainframe capabilities. These outfits, however, service minute market segments. Bottom line: IBM is the mainframe king with no rivals breathing down its neck.

So why spend so many billions on mainframe R&D? The mainframe is actually fighting for server workloads alongside high-end Unix. And this battle is driving the mainframe forward as a relevant platform for the 21st century. 95 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, after all, continue to use mainframes, and about two-thirds of all business transactions for U.S. retail banks run on them. And IBM intends to move big iron further into the enterprise.

"The mainframe is by far the most secure place to have your data," says Martin. "We are seeing companies take a fresh look at the mainframe as a hub for enterprise systems."

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