August 28, 2006 2:02 PM PDT

IBM goes on mainframe offensive

IBM has plans in place to spend tens of millions of dollars to coax new customers to buy the company's mainframes.

The money will be spent in the "next couple years" on tasks such as training customers, tuning their software for mainframes and helping them migrate computing infrastructure, said Jim Stallings, who in January took over as head of the mainframe group.

Jim Stallings
Jim Stallings,
IBM mainframe chief

"When you have a mainframe in your infrastructure, you understand its attributes. If you haven't been exposed to that, it's very different," Stallings said. "We're going to spend a bunch of money helping them."

Mainframes are lauded even by competitors for their reliability and heavy-duty communication abilities. But the machines don't come cheap--the new System z9 Business Class has lowered the starting price to $100,000--and there are abundant competitors running Unix, Linux and Windows that administrators are more likely to learn about.

Prime candidates for mainframe purchases are customers running servers from Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, Stallings said. Those competitors have their own counterpoint prepared, though. "IBM mainframe customers are moving to HP because the cost of the mainframe no longer makes business sense," said Mark Hudson, vice president of marketing for HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers group, arguing that the costs are lower for the relatively mainstream Intel processor technology in its Integrity server lines.

IBM has growth hopes for the mainframe, however. Stallings pointed to three main thrusts to make that growth a reality.

First, Big Blue expects to benefit from special-purpose mainframe hardware--IFL for running Linux, zIIP for running IBM's DB2 database software, and zAAP for running Java software. Buying that hardware frees up more expensive processing capacity for general-purpose tasks.

And IBM plans more such "specialty engines," Stallings said, citing search, regulatory compliance and security as possible areas.

Second, IBM is expanding into new regions where mainframes are scarce. That includes Russia, China and India, Stallings said. The new $100,000 machine is key to this effort, he said: "We're at a price point now you can afford."

The third expansion area is security. IBM wants mainframes to be a "security hub" for the center of customers' encrypted communications, he said.

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Perhaps IBM can get up the profile of mainframes again, but if
enterprises are looking into mainframes, a look at the alternatives
would not hurt. For example, Unisys still has their B5000-based
Clearpath MCP systems with clean stack-based architecture and all
OS software written in high-level languages. Clearpath MCP is a
high-level architecture like Java's JVM, but runs on bare-metal, or
way down to systems that are emulated on a PC with corresponding
low entry price (much lower than $100,000).
Posted by Ian Joyner (66 comments )
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Not the reason people use mainframes
Those things have nothing to do with the real reasons people use mainframes. THey are rock solid reliable. Unscheduled downtime is so rare, that in my mainframe experience (Since 1993) I know of only two incidents of unplanned downtime. They have HUGE IO channels. They can move large amounts of data from A to B, touching it on the way by. Security - I have only once in my life seen mainframe security bypassed. Multi-user capabilities are exceptional, with one process rarely affecting others. The have virtualization built in, right down to the metal, and can isolate environments so well, you will not even know that other things are running.

Mainframes are expensive, and often smaller systems are the best solution, but until stability and scalability grow by a factor of magnitude, mainframes will be around for those really critical applications.

I am no mainframe fanboy. I am working now on trying to migrate a medium sized application off of a mainframe and onto a smaller platform, however, I understand that these machines have their place, and likely will for many years to come.
Posted by amadensor (248 comments )
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