The Proper Role for the Mainframe

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Mainframes continue to hold their own against the onslaught of distributed server architectures, not because they are considered superior to newer technologies but because they still have a unique role to play in the enterprise.


Recent market research from BMC Software http://home.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/index.jsp?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20070828005426&newsLang=enindicates that 90 percent of mainframe users see the devices as long-term data hub and transaction server solutions fully suited to expected future workloads, particularly in SOA and Web services endeavors. Distributed servers, meanwhile, are likely to appeal to specialized shops with low MIPS requirements.


According to Richard Ptak of Ptak Noel and Associates, new user interfaces and other advances have made the mainframe the preferred solution for such critical tasks as multiple workload processing, utilization tracking, network analysis, control centralization and resource allocation. And while the server community is scrambling to improve the normal 10 to 20 percent utilization rate with virtualization and other technologies, mainframes can run as high as 90 percent.


Of course, when you think mainframe, you think IBM. The company has not been shy about boosting the attributes of the System z, which is a far cry from the mainframe of yesteryear in terms of size, weight, power efficiency and capabilities. The z9, for example, comes in at 1,542 pounds on a 13.31-square-foot footprint. The BC version starts at $100,000, supports up to 64 GB of memory and provides seven customizable processor engines, plus a System Assist Processor (SAP).


There are also manpower issues to consider. In this Q&A with IT Jungle, the chief architect at software developer CA says it's easier to maintain a small staff of competent mainframe application experts than to constantly churn through Windows, Linux and UNIX programmers and managers.


But no matter which architecture you choose, staffing is likely to get tight. The U.S. Department of Labor expects another 600,000 IT jobs in the next five years, with only 200,000 qualified graduates.


Still there are those who say the mainframe's days are numbered. Pat Gelsinger, Intel's senior VP for enterprise systems who has been predicting the end for close to 20 years, now says that virtualization will soon allow mainframe applications to run on x86 servers.


Intel, in fact, has pitched its Itanium chip as a mainframe alternative, although not with overwhelming success so far. Cheaper is all well and good, but there's something to be said for stability as well.


After years of listening to how new technologies will make old ones obsolete, I've come to conclude that the transformation is rarely total. We still listen to the radio, and there are still plenty of folks with a vinyl record collection (you know who you are). If you ask me if there is room in the modern enterprise for both mainframes and smaller servers, my answer is "you bet."