Hardware Today: Mainframes Remain Main Event for Some

by Ben Freeman

Mainframes may not be the next big thing or even front-page news these days, but they're still very much present. Hardware Today looks at three mainframe vendors and some of their recent deployments.

Mainframes may not be the next big thing or front-page news these days, but they aren't out of the running, either.

The latest batch of stats from IDC offers proof of this. In the fourth quarter of 2003, x86 servers had the most growth: Revenue was up 15 percent, and unit shipments were up 23 percent. However, Unix sales increased marginally (0.8 percent to be exact), and two vendors had substantial mainframe victories. Sun, in third place, posted 18.2 percent unit growth, the strongest year-over-year showing in that department among the five major players, and IBM, in first place, achieved 33 percent unit growth in OS/390 sales.

Today's mainframe is often deployed in server environments where ROI and consolidated infrastructure are of prime importance. This week, Hardware Today takes a close look at three mainframe vendors, IBM, Unisys, and Sun, as well as some recent deployments.

Still Thinking Big With Big Blue

As Gartner anticipated in last year's "Predicts 2004: Future of the Mainframe," IBM has continued to innovate its eServer zSeries mainframe line. But the $1 billion Big Blue invested in the z990 leading up to its May 2003 product launch pales in comparison to the $5 billion it shelled out in 1964 to develop its first mainframe, the System/360, which was first unveiled in April 1964.

One early System/360 adopter, Aetna Insurance, has been loyal to mainframe computing and IBM since it began using mainframes in 1965. "The transaction-processing capability of the mainframe allowed Aetna to start automating the process of creating an insurance policy," and IBM spokesperson told ServerWatch. "Until then," he said, "policies were handwritten and mailed to the home office."

Today, a paper to mainframe migration is unlikely, but IBM mainframes remain compelling. "The more security and compliance concerns emerge as the key issues for companies across the board, the more frightening the idea of a distributed, decentralized IT infrastructure becomes," IBM said. Instead, managers "want to house their data and applications all in one place on a platform that will never go down."

Sparkassen Informatik (SI) was one company looking for a system with such reliability. The leading German retail banking solutions provider spent millions this year deploying 20 IBM eServer zSeries z990s to simplify its infrastructure and more than double processor capacity.

Another recent IBM mainframe victory also came from the bustling world of German finance. The German Federal Financial Office recently replaced 30 Sun and Fujitsu-Siemens Unix servers with a single IBM zSeries z990 running Linux for its back-office operations. The move, according to IBM, reduced TCO and bolstered efficiency by consolidating infrastructure. zSeries mainframes running Linux challenge popular conceptions of mainframes being limited to proprietary operating systems.

Unisys on the Edge

Unisys' history traces back more than a century. Its mainframes received mainstream notice when the UNIVAC-1 predicted Eisenhower's landslide in a projected close race. The early Unisys systems also provided some unanticipated side benefits. "These early systems were so large that our engineers used to walk into them. to enjoy the effect of their powerful internal cooling systems," Chander Khanna, Unisys vice president of platform marketing said.

Unisys can even take credit for being the originator of industry jargon: Former-Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a UNIVAC and COBOL pioneer, coined the term "computer bug" when she found a moth in trapped a room-sized early mainframe.

The Unisys of today is the offspring of many mergers, and the company has always had to play a balancing act to incorporate new products into its portfolio. Recent customer victories have entrenched its high wire walk, particularly in the area of mainframe service and sales.

In 2003, Unisys added 76 new customers on the strengths of its Web-enablement focus, through which mainframes are deployed primarily for apps on the network edge. They "are taking advantage of the Web as a way of accessing and harnessing the power of totally reliable, scalable, and secure mainframe applications in a more open distributed way," Khanna said.

As further proof of the vendor's edge-prominence he cited a recently inked deal for which JBoss will use Unisys mainframes to run JBoss Mainframe J2EE. "This allows customers to leverage their mainframe technology and investment with readily available programming skills and applications," Khanna said, "helping clients achieve the best of both worlds — the mainframe world and the open, distributed world." In certain Web hosting environments — the edge of the edge, perhaps — customers protect their investments and further reduce TCO with consolidated mainframe infrastructure.

>> Sun's Not-Quite Mainframes

Sun's Not-Quite Mainframes

Sun Microsystems has taken an aggressive approach to the mainframe space, urging customers to rehost IBM mainframes on its mainframe-like Solaris 9 SPARC systems. "Sun has proven there are real value points for mainframe features in the Unix world, developing innovations ... that others are now trying to copy," Sun vice president of marketing Steve Campbell said.

Campbell emphasizes that Sun's systems are not mainframes. At least not in the sense that "mainframe computers are costly, complex, closed systems that our companies are finding to be a tremendous expense." Migration to a Sun "Unix 'mainframe'" means "no more programmers specializing in COBOL."

Recent Unix "mainframe" victories for Sun include Transamerica Life Canada, which moved its applications to Sun SPARC servers and cut costs by 50 percent. It also achieved ROI in six months, and boosted system performance by 25 percent, Campbell added.

On the IBM rehosting front, German steel magnate Böhler Edelstahl GmbH, recently migrated from IBM zSeries 900s to Sun Fire servers running Solaris 9. "Böhler Edelstahl expects to realize a substantial return on investment and reduce operational costs up to 40 percent," Campbell said.

Moving Toward Modularity

Sun is pushing its mainframe approach as more modular, and Unisys and IBM are moving their mainframes to more open standards with respective Windows and Linux options.

This puts the three vendors in more similar boats than Sun would probably care to admit. Sun is still touting its Solaris operating system as a salve to proprietary problems, while also having hedged its bets and moved toward the x86 architecture with its Sun Fire server and April announcement of a closer relationship with Microsoft. Unisys and IBM today also offer, and rely heavily on, non-mainframe options.

But all three (as well as various other vendors) continue developing mainframe solutions, and real-world enterprises are finding value in them. The key, of course, is finding which solution makes the most sense for your organization.

This article was originally published on Monday May 10th 2004
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