Friday, July 30, 2010

The Mainframe Extends its Reach

Over the course of the last decade there has been considerable discussion about the future development and use of the revered Mainframe platform, usually now to be found under the IBM System z banner. At times much that has been written has not flattered the mainframe but that may be about to change. Whilst the platform is still by no means cheap in absolute Dollar, Sterling or Euro terms there is usually an array of financing options available to help meet most potential scenarios. Beyond that, the platform usually manages to compare favourably when its scale, management, power / space efficiency and overall TCO estimates are calculated.

There is absolutely no doubting IBM’s commitment to the platform. The company continues to invest large sums of money and resources developing the mainframe in both the hardware and software platforms. Equally it is important to recognise that there is a very active community built around the mainframe and it is clear that the majority of these are also committed to developing their offerings further. To see that this is the case one has simply to look at how companies such as CA and BMC are developing their complementary management tools as well activities by application ISVs such as ACI who are now robustly promoting mainframe based solutions. The mainframe vendor ecosystem is large and active.

Clearly there are challenges that organisations using the mainframe need to address. Perhaps the most visible of these concerns the age of those currently administering these enterprise workhorses. In many cases these highly skilled professionals are in the age bracket where considerations of retirement are not far away. Given the skills required to run mainframes this is causing some concerns but there is now an active education programme in place to tempt students and those new to IT to acquire mainframe skills. At the same time the overall management workload is easing as CA, IBM and other vendors deliver new tools to the market to help reduce the workload burden further. In some ways this is somewhat ironic as several studies have indicated that mainframe administrators can already handle far larger workloads than administrators of other platforms.

But the debate on the future of the mainframe should not be focussed so much on the development of the technology itself or how to ensure that skilled administrators are available to run the systems. Instead it should now focus on what role the mainframe has going forward to deliver business services? To understand this it is important that people understand just what type of system the Mainframe is today and what business operations it can assist. In some places this “understanding” may be several years behind reality and is often linked to out of date perceptions of where things fit.

Recently the importance of meeting this challenge head on has become even more important, partly as a consequence of recent system z announcements by IBM, but even more so as business requirements for secure, cost-effective, flexible and resilient business services continue to grow. The announcement in July of the release of the IBM zEnterprise 196 System has huge potential to cause a major rethink on where the mainframe is perceived to play, if IBM can wake organisations up and educate on the system as it exists today rather than where people, many IT professionals included, think it sits with images of times long past.

As well as offering all of the now well-established offload engines, such as the IFL, zIIP, ZaaP to run Linux, DB2 and java workloads, the new system promises to allow organisations to add zBlade extension systems running IBM’s Power platform or x86 workloads. When used with the new Unified Resource Management software it will become possible for administrators to manage services composed of workload elements running on any of the mainframes multiple operating systems and IBM’s AIX or Linux platforms on the special blade extensions as single environments with all of the control functionality and flexibility for which the mainframe should be well known.

Challenging peoples’ out of date perceptions takes time and effort and can be extremely taxing. The challenge for IBM and its ecosystem of suppliers is to assist in perception resetting, especially helping to update the understanding of the potential use of mainframes amongst both the wider IT community and, more importantly, amongst business managers. The new IBM zEnterprise 196 offers IBM a great opportunity to reposition the mainframe and to actively seek out new customers rather than to simple continue to grow amongst its well established user base.

It is clear that the platform has the capacity to deliver a greatly expanded range of IT services cost effectively and the challenge for IBM and the wider mainframe ecosystem is to ensure that organisations understand where its capabilities can be most effectively deployed. This will take considerable effort by IBM and its ecosystem partners like CA and BMC. But the platform has never been better positioned for a major market re-education and the wider economic and regulatory environment make now the time for the undertaking to begin. The major questions are thus will the market see these developments as defensive measure to protect the established mainframe base or as moves to encourage others to take up the platform and will IBM aggressively seek to educate potential new customers on the extended modern mainframe’s capabilities?

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