Analysis: Where Now, Trusty Mainframe?

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.”

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