Analysis: Where Now, Trusty Mainframe?

Whether or not these computing warhorses can support heterogeneous data-center needs and future cloud-computing efforts will go a long way toward determining the mainframe’s continued role in corporate IT environments.

The mainframe computer is the Mark Twain of IT: Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, mainframes are alive and well, and are continuing to deliver business value to the companies that depend on them.

Among those companies are most of the world's financial institutions, as well as other large companies that rely on transaction-heavy processing. They're unlikely to abandon their mainframes for a few simple reasons:

  • The machines represent a significant investment.
  • They handle large workloads more effectively than today's more-nimble-but-less-robust servers.
  • They're still the most stable and secure of computing platforms.

"You can't string Unix boxes or x86 machines together and get that kind of reliability and performance," says Joe Clabby, president of technology market research firm Clabby Analytics.

That said, the mainframe market -- which pretty much means IBM, whose market share is pegged by market-watchers at about 90 percent -- faces a critical challenge: To attract new customers. "It's hard to make the mental leap into mainframe computing," says Clabby.

The main issue is high cost, or at least the perception of it.

Mainframes are expensive, as is the software they run. But, Clabby says, a closer look at the numbers reveals that, while the comparatively nimbler x86-based systems used in most companies today carry lower up-front costs, mainframes actually are less costly in the long run.

Still, those up-front costs are a major deterrent, according to Merv Adrian, former principal of IT consultancy IT Market Strategy who recently joined the staff of Gartner as a research vice president. Adrian says that, while companies that have already invested in mainframes are apt to expand on those investments, those that have eschewed mainframes aren't likely to take the plunge. "That's a problem," Adrian adds.

In reality, it might not even be wise to count on those existing customers. Robert Crawford, a mainframe systems programmer for a large financial services firm (which he requested we not identify), says high costs are making it harder for his company to justify continued commitment to mainframe technology, and there's increasing discussion about taking applications off the mainframe.

"IBM and the independent software vendors are in danger of killing the goose," Crawford says, referring to that proverbial producer of golden eggs. He suggests IBM rethink the pricing structure for additional machines. Crawford believes the company needs to rethink, as well, the pricing structure of software license renewals. Though he does not expect to see the mainframe disappear from the IT landscape during the next five to 10 years, Crawford says that, after that, all bets are off.

To that end, Gartner's Adrian believes that the mainframe's long-term future could hinge on how effective IBM is at addressing the market need for a "command center" to contend with growing data center complexity. IBM is attempting to solve that problem with its new mainframe offering, the zEnterprise System, which can manage the heterogeneous workloads that are prevalent in modern data centers.

Clabby agrees that IBM's ability to convince IT buyers that zEnterprise can address their data center needs and support future cloud-computing efforts will go a long way toward determining the mainframe's continued role in corporate IT environments. "It's all about capturing new workloads," says Clabby. "The mainframe has been positioned as a big database server and a big transaction engine. Now it's being positioned as a big server for Java applications."

Gartner's Adrian isn't expecting much progress for the zEnterprise until 2012, but he does see at least a modicum of success from IBM eventually, which is a big reason he remains "cautiously optimistic" about the future of the mainframe. Says Adrian: "IBM has confounded everyone who has bet against the mainframe for the last two decades, and there are fewer reasons than ever to think it's dying."

This article was originally published on 03-17-2011
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