Can the mainframe really grow?

IDC sees five-year growth for Big Iron hardware and software.

The z
Some industry observers still like to kick dents in the mainframe saying it's not the corporate platform of the future but the Big Iron seemingly takes the licks and keeps on ticking. 

Case in point:  According to a study out today of 300 end users by researchers at IDC nearly one-half of said they plan to increase annual spending on mainframe hardware and software over the next five years. Only IBM mainframe users were included in the survey population, IDC noted.

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Many mainframe users reported that they can plan another wave of investments in the System z platform over the next 2-5 years, citing the system's high availability, reliability, and security for mission-critical applications as major drivers, IDC stated.

"Customers continue to collect dividends on their System z investments, which makes future investments much more palatable, even in difficult economic times," said Tim Grieser, program vice president, Enterprise System Management Software in a release.

The study says IBM's strategy of building specialty processors for the mainframe, such as the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) System z Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) for ERP and CRM transactions and z Application Assist Processor (zAAP) processors for Java and XML transactions are key to ongoing success of the platform.

IBM has engaged in some price cutting to make some of these processors more palatable though. According to a Network World article IBM has cut in half prices for some specialty Linux processors. IBM acknowledged "new pricing" for the IFL processors, but did not offer specific numbers. Another source said the price changed from $90,000 to $47,500 for IFLs running on the System z Business Class mainframe.

And IBM's mainframes haven't been immune to the economic downturn. This summer IBM reported that System z mainframe server revenue decreased 39% year-over-year in the second quarter, while overall company revenue declined 13%.

IDC however says the mainframe will benefit down the road from these new processors which will require additional mainframe-related database and storage facilities to handle new workloads. 

Still all is by no means rosy in mainframeland. Another recent study raised an ever-increasing issue - retiring mainframers.  

One study by system vendor Shoden found that 96% of respondents working for financial businesses said that they are concerned to some degree that with cloud computing and SaaS they will not be able to retain the necessary skills to operate and maintain legacy environments such as IBM mainframe or AS/400.

The study said in the manufacturing sector, 88% of IT decision makers admitting to being concerned, while across all the markets polled, the average comes in at a staggering 83%. The retail, distribution and transport sectors come in just a little lower at 80%.

The study went on to state that mainframe technology is as old as the Boeing 747 and, like the iconic aircraft, it is still the default workhorse for many of its original adopters. However, while today individuals still train to become commercial pilots, the number of IT professionals going into the mainframe arena is fast disappearing.

A similar study funded by CA found that Financial Services organizations are leading the drive to tackle the shortage of mainframe skills in Europe where 60% of financial service firms use the mainframe for administering their critical data. In the CA study it found 57% of financial services organizations said an easy-to-use Web-enabled GUI would help close the skills gap.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.