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Reports of Its Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Mainframe Enjoys Sustained Quarterly Growth, Defying the Experts. . . Again

7/1/2011 6:35:12 AM |

The world was supposed to end on May 21, according to a crazy fringe radio personality and his followers. When the day passed without incident, the doomsday date was "recalculated" for Oct. 21, and will no doubt be recalculated many more times.

For IT professionals in the IBM mainframe space, such doomsday prognostications carry a fairly familiar ring; the mainframe's demise has been predicted countless times by "experts" spanning three decades. Nevertheless, the mainframe continues to play a central and influential role in the continually evolving IT world.

Indeed, IBM's System z mainframe hardware business has experienced several consecutive quarters of impressive growth, with the first quarter of 2011 posting a remarkable 41-percent revenue jump over the same quarter in 2010.

"Clearly, the last three quarters, we've seen incredible growth," says Doris Conti, IBM director for System z Marketing. "Typically, we experience a little growth after a new box is released—such as our announce and release back in July of 2010—but what we're seeing is something much more sustained and is something we haven't seen over the last decade following any box release. I think the concept of the box we released in July has really resonated with customers and has been responsible for much of the sustained interest and growth."

The "concept" Conti refers to is the hybrid computing model featuring a new IBM zEnterprise 196 (z196) system, the zEnterprise BladeCenter eXtension (zBX), and an innovative Unified Resource Manager (zManager). While the z196 supports the traditional z/OS, z/VM, z/VSE, z/TPF and assorted Linux variants, the zBX blade extension allows for integration and management of POWER7 and x86 System x blade servers on board the z196. This integration allows certain POWER7 modules to run AIX applications, which is anticipated to be extended this year to include Windows applications as well, hence the overall hybrid concept.

"As with most announces and releases, the new system featured great capacity and the next generation of the mainframe with more performance, scalability and efficiency, so clients are picking and upgrading to take advantage of all that," says Conti. "But also being able to look at it as a hybrid computing model and being able to take advantage of really the first system that allows for integration of the mainframe with distributed systems and manage it all in essentially one system. That's a big reason for sustained interest."

The mainframe does not live on hybrid computing alone, to paraphrase a fairly famous book. While new mainframe releases and directions certainly drive customer interest and adoption, wider worldwide economic considerations must be taken into account as well.

Following the economic maelstrom of 2008 and the limping recovery that's followed, some developing economies—particularly in Asia and some parts of South America—are stronger, in fact they're almost thriving. For the mainframe—which is usually associated primarily with Western job markets—today's developing economic markets represent a new and enthusiastic customer base.

"We're seeing a lot of demand here in Asia for things like payment and credit card systems," says Timothy Sipples, IBM resident enterprise architect, currently working in Singapore. "So, we're seeing brand new enterprise customers coming to the mainframe often from, but not limited to, developing markets. That's driving considerable growth in previously untapped markets and that accounts for a substantial part of the growth we've been seeing in recent years and will be accelerating, I expect."

According to Sipples, business interest in the mainframe is a logical phenomenon that's to be expected when you have developing countries investing in ambitious infrastructure development, such as high speed rail, airport expansions, air traffic control systems, government financial institutions, and other such projects. Not surprisingly, IBM has been vigorously targeting those emerging economies, touting the mainframe's sophistication and reputation as a "bullet proof" piece of IT hardware that can handle even the most demanding operational workloads.

"The mainframe represents the most evolved and sophisticated form of IT infrastructure," he says. "So it's no surprise to me actually that customers within these developing economies are very interested in that type of infrastructure to help them grow and be successful in businesses and government."

Together, the mainframe's hybrid push further into the overall IT server space and its expanding appeal by both government and business entities in developing economies worldwide, is once again proving to defy the prognostications of even the most seasoned IT opinion makers. Further, as cloud computing and virtualization become bigger and more important players in the overall IT world, the mainframe resides in a sweet spot capable of providing the necessary means for delivering both, with the added attractive component of the mainframe's unparalleled security.

"You start to lose count how many times the mainframe has been proclaimed dead," says Conti. "It seems like every time you hear that, the mainframe just comes back even stronger. Its resiliency is due to a combination of the powerful hardware it has always been and its ability to continually evolve and adapt to the IT requirements of the ever-changing enterprise business space."

Indeed, when it comes to the business world of enterprise computing, history has shown it's often the mainframe competitors that find themselves eventually trampled and left on the wayside by big iron.

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