The Revenge of the Mainframe


Despite increased application workloads driven largely by the use of Linux, for the past 10 years IBM has been pretty defensive about the mainframe. After all, every vendor in the industry takes potshots at the platform, so it might be understandable if it feels as if IBM is always trying to dispel reports about the impending death of the mainframe.

Tom Rosamilia, general manager of IBM's System Z mainframes, wants to turn all that around, however, by going on the offensive. This week IBM is celebrating 10 years of running Linux on its most venerable platform, noting that 70 percent of its mainframe customers run 3,250 applications using the open source operating system on their mainframes.

Furthermore, Rosamilia says a trend toward server consolidation is making the mainframe more popular than ever. He notes that customers are successfully running hundreds of virtual machines on mainframes designed to share high-speed memory and are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on energy costs by replacing Intel or Unix servers with instances of Linux running on a mainframe.

Rosamilia concedes that IBM's biggest challenge with a mainframe is the price, but he argues that most IT organizations don't fairly evaluate the total cost of enterprise computing when comparing a mainframe to other platforms. Specifically, they generally fail to factor in the total number of servers they need to acquire, the power consumed by those servers and the number of people they need to hire to run those servers.

The movement toward virtual servers, coupled with power-management issues, have breathed new life into the mainframe, which is now more widely considered for a broader array of application workloads, thanks to largely to Linux. In addition, the mainframe is proving itself to be an efficient cloud computing platform, as witnessed by IBM's Cognos business intelligence service that is powered by IBM mainframes.

IBM is working to increase the pool of IBM mainframe talent in the world as well. IBM has relationships with more than 650 schools that have trained 50,000 students on mainframes in the past five years, and IT professionals with mainframe skills can command premium salaries. At one point, there was a concern that the pool of mainframe talent would shrivel up as the general population ages and languages such as COBOL fell out of favor with younger programmers. But IBM notes that a declining economy has slowed the number of mainframe professionals wanting to retire, while the number of new adherents to the platform steadily increases.

In the future, Rosmilia said he also expects to see increased demand for mainframes, thanks to e-commerce applications driven by mobile computing devices such as smartphones that are essentially "mobile ATMs." Those devices are unpredictable in terms of the traffic they will generate at any given time, and the mainframe is the only platform that can dynamically scale to meet additional processing requirements without having to be taken off line.

Both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are set to upgrade their processor lineups with high-end offerings in the coming months, but that may only serve to highlight things that the mainframe already does well.

Of course, it may take a while for the mainframe to be cool again. But like so many trends that keep coming back over the decades, the odds are good that mainframes will be in vogue again in the not too distant future as well.