U.S. House decommissions its last mainframe, saves $730,000

U.S. House of Representatives has taken its last mainframe offline

The U.S. House of Representatives has taken its last mainframe offline, signaling the end of a computing era in Washington, D.C.

The last mainframe supposedly enjoyed "quasi-celebrity status" within the House data center, having spent 12 years keeping the House's inventory control records and financial management data, among other tasks. But it was time for a change, with the House spending $30,000 a year to power the mainframe and another $700,000 each year for maintenance and support.

How to really bury a mainframe

The cost and energy savings contribute to the Green the Capitol program designed to improve efficiency in the halls of Congress. Applications running on the last mainframe have been moved to x86 and Unix servers, many of which are using virtualization technology that first appeared on the mainframe decades ago. 

"It's a symbolic transition into the latest and greatest in terms of green technology, virtualization, consolidation and all those things," says Jack Nichols, director of enterprise operations at the House of Representatives. "The mainframe plug was pulled, but it was pulled in favor of something that was started in the mainframe world." 

The House had been using mainframes since at least the early 1970s, and at one time had a 13,000-square-foot data center dedicated to mainframe and mainframe operations. As mainframes grew stronger, the House moved down to just one machine, in addition to other types of servers. The last mainframe was an IBM model in place since 1997, and was situated in the Ford House Office Building.

"It wasn't the fastest box in the world," says Rich Zanatta, director of facilities for the House. "Some of our blades and some of our standard servers have more capability than that entire 8-cubic-foot box has. Technology-wise, it's obviously been surpassed."

New mainframes are far more powerful and efficient than those built in the 90s, of course. But the House decided not to buy another mainframe in part because its IT staff has more expertise running x86 and Unix boxes.

"We really don't' have those [mainframe] skill sets in house anymore," Zanatta says. "We try not to maintain architecture that we can't support ourselves."

The staff for House Chief Administrator Officer Daniel Beard held a ceremony to take the mainframe offline Friday. It will be turned over to the U.S. General Services Administration, and could resurface in the used mainframe market. The House also had a second mainframe in a backup site, the location of which is secret, which was also shut off. 

Decommissioning the mainframe involved getting rid of lots of large, bulky cables, not to mention migrating applications to newer systems. The mainframe had been running a half-dozen applications including staff payroll, inventory management, committee calendars and other legislative tasks. But the House staff has been working to move those applications to new servers for the past five years, a process that just ended.

Turning off the mainframe is a big step in reducing the House's server footprint. Already, the House consolidated about 150 test servers down to 20 through virtualization, and consolidated about 120 production servers onto 15 or 20.

"Those are dramatic savings for us in the way of power and cooling," Zanatta says.

The mainframe was consuming 10,000 to 15,000 watts an hour, and maintenance and support costs were increasing because it was so out-of-date.

"As it increases in age, so does the maintenance cost," Zanatta says. "We were starting to hit that threshold of pain."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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