Analysis: New IBM mainframe won't end battle for Big Iron's soul

First System z update since 2005 due this month; fight against servers continues

IBM is expected later this month to announce its next-generation System z mainframe, its first update since the release of the z9 three years ago. It is promising improved energy efficiency, security and "50% more capacity" in its new hardware.

But what this new mainframe won't change is the ongoing battle for IBM mainframe customers, who can easily spend millions of dollars on a new system and are continually wooed by alternative and much less costly platforms.

The venerable mainframe has a vital role in many large companies, and that's not going to change anytime soon. The mainframe "is the king of the house, it's where the crown jewels are stored," said Mike Walter, a Z/VM systems manager at Hewitt Associates LLC, a human resource services company in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Mainframes earn their keep in many ways, but the one characteristic that's often at the top of any list is their reliability. Walter can only recall one mainframe crash in 10 years. "How many distributed servers can say that?" he said.

A big advantage for distributed servers, on the other hand, is cost. Palm Beach Community College just auctioned off its zSeries 890 on eBay for $40,000, after paying $500,000 for the system three years ago.

Tony Parziale, the CIO of the 46,000-student college in Lake Worth, Fla., said the four-socket Intel system that is replacing the z890 will cost about $30,000. While his IT staff will miss some of the mainframe's tools, the new system "runs faster than the mainframe, and the software cost less," he said.

Decisions, decisions

This conflict between distributed systems and mainframes is evident in a recent survey by the IBM user group Share. More than 430 of its members, with job titles ranging from systems administrator to CIO, responded to the survey. In it, 23% said they were planning to increase usage of their mainframes, compared to 19% that will reduce their use or move off of the systems completely. Of the remainder, 14% said no major changes or migrations were planned; 23% weren't running a mainframe, 18% were unsure, and the balance was in the category of "other."

Since the release of the z9 in 2005, IBM has made a series of announcements concerning projects directed at improving the platform's administration. These include a $100 million investment by IBM to simplify the mainframe environment and encourage use of the systems in service-oriented architectures (SOA). The company is also funding training programs at universities worldwide to ensure that there is enough mainframe-trained talent available.

The upcoming System z announcement will also emphasize "unprecedented levels of workload consolidation," said IBM CFO Mark Loughridge, who previewed the upcoming system during a conference call on the company's latest financial results last month.

Energy savings is a big reason for workload consolidation these days, and it is why IBM will likely give a lot of attention to the ability of its mainframes to host thousands of virtual servers in limited data center space.

Despite IBM's efforts, mainframe can be a chore to handle. According to the Share survey, approximately half of those responding said they rely on hand-coding by developers to get access to business information, a time-consuming and potentially error-prone process. A percentage that high indicates that "integration is a hard problem," said Pam Taylor, a vice president of Share and an IT architect at a large company that she asked not be identified.

Taylor sees SOA adoption as a means to address integration. The Share survey points to a movement by users in this direction, with 23% reporting that SOA adoption was underway. Of the remainder, 6% said an SOA project was planned in the next six months, and 26% said it was under consideration. One-third of the respondents said they had no SOA plans for their mainframes, while 11% were unsure.

James Governor, an analyst at consulting firm RedMonk, believes that the SOA adoption rate is larger than the Share figures may indicate. He said that IBM's larger mainframe customers, such as in financial services, "understand the value of opening up their transactions to new applications" through an SOA. But in industries such as manufacturing, mainframe users "are not always looking at the coolest new thing," he added.

Talking SOA in Florida

SOA will be a major topic at Share's annual conference this month in Orlando, said James Michael, the user group's treasurer and an IT manager at a university that he asked not be named. Michael said he himself would like to explore the idea of sharing code used in SOA development.

"Could we drive out some of the development cost of building SOA environments by standardizing on some of the objects that we use?" Michael asked. He's not sure if that is possible, but he hopes to find out from other conference attendees. That kind of knowledge sharing was how the user group got its name decades ago, he pointed out.

Although Michael sees distributed systems improving, he believes that the mainframe's total cost of ownership is less when support costs and technological advantages, particularly in virtualization and security, are considered.

But IBM also has to continue reduce the "sticker shock" of new systems, said Michael, who pointed to the company's specialty, workload-specific processors, as one means for doing so.

One big difference between the mainframe and distributed server worlds is cultural, said Michael. Server administrators are more likely to reboot if there's an issue, while mainframe operators, if asked to reboot, will likely reject the idea and focus on first understanding the problem and finding an alternative means to address it, he said.

Some of this push for changes on the mainframe to improve its use is coming from customers such as Hewitt's Walter. He wanted to make it easier to install SUSE Linux Enterprise Server on the mainframe and last year outlined a suggestion on a mailing list devoted to mainframe discussion for simplifying the installation.

Walter said his idea was picked up at IBM, which worked with SUSE Linux owner Novell Inc. to develop the tool. "The whole point of this new tool is to be able to install [SUSE] Linux quickly and without any experience," he said.

But Walter's main defense of the mainframe isn't pegged on that tool but on the system's overall reliability. "It doesn't fail," he said.

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