Mainframes Back Online

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Fresh off some more-than-encouraging sales numbers for its mainframe business, IBM is looking to extend its lock on the market with new tools designed to appeal to a broader swath of enterprise users. But now that it has proved the mainframe's worth in an age of leaner, meaner servers, will it be able to fend off competition for much longer?


First, the numbers. IBM reported a 12 percent gain in mainframe revenues from the end of 2006 to the first quarter of 2007, contributing to a 25 percent year-on-year gain for the quarter. And at the company's System z Summit this week, we saw the unveiling of the first new toolsets in a $100 million makeover targeting everything from security and data management to virtualization. There's also the new Destination z Web portal that lets z customers swap ideas and develop partnerships.


Much of IBM's focus will be on driving the mainframe downmarket, pitching the idea to SMBs that mainframes aren't the clunky old iron of the past but innovative new platforms that are more flexible, easier to maintain and reconfigure, and consume less power than the clustered server approaches of HP and Sun. Key to this strategy is the new z/VM virtualization software that lets you reconfigure the system virtually on a whim without the cost of major hardware upgrades.


So far, IBM's success with the mainframe has drawn out only low-level competition from startups like Platform Solutions. The two companies are waging a legal battle over licensing rights to IBM's z/OS and OS/390 operating systems, which Platform Solutions wants to run atop its own Itanium 64-based hardware via a proprietary emulation system. For its part, Platform couches the argument as an attempt to break down a corporate monopoly.


Regardless of how the legal process shakes out, IBM is poised to be the dominant mainframe player for some time to come. The major challenge now is to convince users that big iron is still the way to go.