That's what I was thinking when I listened to IBM introduce the zEnterprise 114 this week, its System Z mainframe for the midmarket. With Oracle's purchase of Sun crippling Oracle's strategic advantage, IBM seems to be in a vastly stronger strategic place.
At the core of this announcement is a product that can handle the load that currently takes up to 40 x86 servers (processors) to one platform with three processors that run Linux. IBM claims that the savings is up to 80 percent over the alternative approach. Now realize this is only for the kinds of loads that favor mainframe architecture like large Oracle databases. But what makes this amazing is that we thought the mainframe was effectively dead in the 1980s and that companies like Sun would dominate. In the current decade, Sun is gone and the mainframe is enjoying massive growth and drifting into the midmarket.
Let's talk about some interesting parts of this.
IBM vs. Oracle
IBM and Oracle are long-time competitors. While IBM had far more overall power, Oracle (because it was hardware-independent) had a sustaining advantage because it could work closely with all of IBM's competitors and gain a Microsoft-like scale that even IBM couldn't match. I was on a team that tried to spin out IBM software in IBM years ago to try to better match both Oracle and Microsoft, but that effort failed and the result was that IBM was overmatched.
That changed when Oracle bought Sun and suddenly went to war with HP, Dell, EMC and other long-time partners by becoming a competitor. While these folks are taking different approaches in their efforts to hurt Oracle (for instance, IBM is aggressively passing on cost savings to customers to provide a strong contrast to the perception that Oracle is price gouging), the results on paper actually favor IBM because Sun was on life support, which hurt Oracle's strategic advantage more than Oracle's account-control-focused effort helped it.
The end result is a distinct weakness across Oracle's old ecosystem that IBM is exploiting and an increased resurgence of the mainframe. It is increasingly looking like Oracle has done IBM one heck of a favor and IBM is moving aggressively to take advantage of it.
The Mainframe Is Back, Baby
You know the funny thing about technology is that it tends to go in cycles. What hurt the mainframe the most was the market's move to decentralize and put performance closer to the user. However, the massive switch to the Web and the concept of cloud computing reversed this trend and now the focus is to increasingly provide highly customized experiences on the Web. This shifts from heavy desktop and distributed computing platforms to highly centralized and I/O-intensive offerings. Much of what is being done is less about processing power and more about rapid data access or, in other words, mainframe country.
Now the mainframe architecture not only looks like it might survive, but it might actually be favored. And with virtualization, one mainframe can be made to appear like hundreds of individual servers, but it benefits from an architecture that is comparatively simpler and, as a result, easier to manage than those hundreds of servers ever could be. This is management 101: Rather than create complexity and then create tools to reduce it, why not start out with a less complex solution? System Z has simply turned out to be more elegant.
Wrapping Up: Tablets the New Terminals?
In looking at the mainframe and the limitations of tablets, which are basically consumption devices, I'm beginning to wonder: If the mainframe is back, are tablets the new terminals? We often talk these days about clients and servers as if they aren't part of the same solution, but that isn't the way it was back when mainframes were king. One couldn't exist without the other. So, looking forward, I wonder how long it will be before Apple and IBM hook up to create a tighter link between their offerings. BMC is already moving in this direction with its purchase of Aeroprise and it is a long-time IBM solutions player.
In the end though, the mainframe is back, Oracle is blessing IBM's model and the world of today is increasingly looking like the world of yesterday that was dominated by the mainframe. Given IBM is the only company still making them, that puts it in a really nice position with part of the credit going to Oracle. Sam Palmisano should really send Larry Ellison a "thank you" note.