Big Blue's mainframe gathers no rust

Big Iron takes center stage but Linux, blade servers and grid computing transform its role.

Mainframe customers are taking a fresh look at the Big Iron that celebrated its 40th birthday last month. IBM is spurring things along with new pricing schemes; more powerful processors; support for non-proprietary technologies such as TCP/IP, Linux and Java; and on-demand offerings that put the mainframe in the reach of even the smallest customers.

Mainframe customers are taking a fresh look at the Big Iron that celebrated its 40th birthday last month. IBM is spurring things along with new pricing schemes; more powerful processors; support for non-proprietary technologies such as TCP/IP, Linux and Java; and on-demand offerings that put the mainframe in the reach of even the smallest customers.

Hewitt Associates' mainframe environment is a classic example of how the Big Iron has evolved. Daniel Kaberon, director of computer resource management at the human resources outsourcing and consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill., says the company still uses the mainframe as the foundation of its data center. But it has integrated the system into an evolving architecture that links the mainframe with grid computing and blade servers to get more processing power at a lower price.

Nevertheless, some industry observers still see the mainframe as a dying breed.

"You can change and adapt the environment in which [the mainframe] works, but you can't turn it into something which it is not," says Bob Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research. "People will have to get rid [of the mainframe] eventually, just as they got rid of key-punch machines and a myriad of other systems."

Djurdjevic says the decline in mainframe revenue illustrates the trend. He says IBM has seen revenue drop - save for an uptick last year, the first upswing in eight years - to where it accounts for about 4% of Big Blue's overall revenue. But that's still around $4 billion, according to IDC estimates.

IBM doesn't break out revenue for specific product lines, but did note in its annual report that zSeries revenue was up 7.4% in 2003, in large part because of the release of the z990 "T-Rex" last spring. In the first quarter this year, IBM reported that total delivery of zSeries computing power as measured in million instructions per second nearly doubled compared to the same quarter a year ago.

"This doesn't come out and tell me that the mainframe is a dying platform," Kaberon says.

He still runs his firm's most critical applications on a Parallel Sysplex cluster of eight mainframes. But for those applications - or parts of applications - where the mainframe doesn't make sense, Kaberon isn't shy about making modifications.

Last fall, Hewitt moved a calculation engine that figures pension benefits off the mainframe and onto a grid of Linux-based, two-processor 2.8-GHz blades from IBM. He says costs associated with each calculation have dropped by more than 90% because it no longer uses expensive mainframe processing power.

Today, Kaberon is working on expanding the grid to support a composed print application that he wants to move off the mainframe, as well.

"We're using the grid as the back end of the mainframe," says Kaberon, who will lead a session focusing on this mainframe-grid architecture later this month at the Grid Today '04 conference in Philadelphia. "We really look at the grid as a mainframe compute peripheral. It's a co-processor. You put the application on the mainframe and then spit part of it out to process and then bring the results back in. The whole workload is managed from the mainframe."

Choose your battles

The basic idea, Kaberon says, is to find the best platform for specific application needs.

"Go ahead and make the mainframe the center of your large database, transaction-processing, storage world, but outsource pieces that are sensible to process off the platform," he says, such as those processor-intensive applications that don't require a lot of input and output. "Don't move the whole workload, just outsource the action."

For other business users, the focus is on bringing more workloads onto the mainframe, not siphoning them off. IBM has been extolling the capabilities of the mainframe for server consolidation, an important consideration for many companies dealing with a proliferation of Intel and Unix servers.

Sophisticated virtualization and partitioning capabilities, paired with improved support for Linux and Java platforms in the form of offload engines, have made the mainframe an attractive platform for server consolidation, users say.

Bob Massengill, manager of technical services at Wake Forest University's Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., runs primarily legacy healthcare applications on the mainframe, but says he is considering moving Oracle databases to Linux partitions within the mainframe to consolidate 30 Sun servers the databases run on today.

"It's something we're evaluating. We're trying to see what the financial gain would be," he says. He notes that with the Oracle licensing scheme, he would pay just one license fee for each mainframe engine no matter how many virtual machines the engine supports.

"Also, we'd likely reduce our management overhead," he says. "It would be simpler and easier to manage, and you could expand with lesser cost."

At Boscov's department store in Reading, Pa., Linux has been the key to consolidating dozens of servers onto the mainframe. Since it deployed Linux on its IBM z900 mainframe in 2001, the store has consolidated about 40 of 70 NT servers onto the mainframe by turning those workloads into Linux instances. Now the focus is on migrating its Web site off a server farm and onto WebSphere Commerce Suite running on Linux on the mainframe.

"We, like all mainframe shops, are being squeezed to reduce the tremendous software costs that we are hit with," says Joe Poole, technical director at Boscov's. "That's one of the reasons people like us are looking at open source operating systems."

Preaching to the choir?

Despite the continuing evolution of the mainframe, analysts still question how many new customers are turning to the platform. IBM won't comment on how much of its zSeries business stems from new buyers,vs. existing mainframe users upgrading their systems. To attract new customers, IBM last year reduced the complex and customized pricing system for zSeries hardware and software, cutting overall pricing by as much as 80%.

In addition, mainframes are available to users on a pay-per-use basis. That's what opened the door to the mainframe for Mobil Travel Guide in Park Ridge, Ill., which gets mainframe capacity-on-demand from a z990 hosted by IBM.

"That gives us the flexibility to grow as large as we could possibly imagine without having to shift to a different hardware environment, change servers or upgrade. . . . And in the off-season we can ramp down our capacity," says Paul Mercurio, senior vice president and CIO at Mobil Travel Guide. "We have a slice of the z990, which is a virtual Linux partition. From the standpoint of our developers it looks to us like we have a dedicated Linux server. To IBM it's a slice of a z990 that they sell to us on a utility basis."

"Had we not made this decision, we'd likely be creating a complex of either Linux or Unix servers," he adds. "We're not large enough to justify a mainframe on our own."

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