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IBM: The Mainframe Is Alive And Going Strong

The company said its hardware mainframe revenue grew 12% in the first quarter of this year compared to the previous quarter, and 25% year-over-year.
IBM on Thursday introduced several software products designed to make its System z mainframe more secure and easier to manage, delivering the first fruits of its five-year $100 million effort to simplify the mainframe.

IBM hosted a z Summit event in New York City, assuring attendees that Big Iron is alive and kicking. "As we look back on 2006, the mainframe was the fastest growing server in the industry," said Steve Mills, senior VP and group executive for IBM's software division, during a presentation.

Space consideration, cooling costs, and other factors are leading businesses to rethink how they're running their systems. With System z, Mills noted that businesses can consolidate computing platforms and run concurrent individual instances of an application on a single mainframe. This allows them to save physical space and use less energy.

To debunk any myths that software development for mainframes is also stagnant, IBM said it will address key areas like system management and security compliance with its new software products, unveiled at the summit. The company rolled out Tivoli zSecure V1.8.1 suite that includes features for administering mainframe security servers, monitoring threats, and enforcing policy compliance. The software allows businesses to deploy a new security policy across the entire company quickly. System administrators can set up access to the mainframe -- who gets it and when. They can also monitor threats and suspected activity using built-in intelligence in zSecure.

The System z mainframe already offers three stages of security at the application level, the operating system level, and the microprocessor level. "But we can't rest assured that we've eliminated all threats, so we're always looking for ways to improve security," said Jim Stallings, general manager of System z, in an interview.

The two other software products unveiled by IBM address managing mainframes and the applications they run. IBM's IT Value Based Analytics monitor costs associated with running a mainframe by relating IT resources consumed to the departments that use the system. "This issue is transparent to end users, but is a big area of focus for CIOs," said IBM's Mills in an interview.

IBM also said it enhanced the mainframe's z/VM virtualization software with ten times more virtualized memory and up to 256 GB of real memory. That means businesses can consolidate more memory-intensive workloads like database apps onto a single copy of z/VM and save money by not deploying additional software.

IBM left the summit audience with the impression that its mainframe business is going strong. The company said its hardware mainframe revenue grew 12% in the first quarter of this year compared to the previous quarter, and 25% year-over-year. The strong growth is partly due to increased mainframe deployments overseas. IBM's mainframe revenue grew in Latin America and Russia, and it doubled in India and China over the past year, said Stallings. A company without a large IT staff can run its entire business from a single mainframe, which is the main appeal for emerging markets over distributed servers.

IBM's customers -- the top 25 banks and the top 25 retailers in the world -- use mainframes for large-scale transactions, Stallings said. One example is the Bank of China, which houses 350 million accounts with three billion transaction histories. It's able to process 30 million transactions in under 60 minutes using IBM's System z.

Meanwhile, other markets are migrating away from RISC-processor mainframes. HP, NEC, Hitachi, and Fujitsu are all focused on mainframe migrations to Intel's high-end Itanium microprocessors. Gartner last year warned customers in a report that trouble may be brewing for IBM due to a growing ecosystem of hardware, software, and service providers focused on this type of mainframe migration.

IBM hopes to raise awareness of its mainframe's advantages and keep the legacy alive by introducing the technology to students around the world, as part of its mainframe education program. Already 42,000 students at 328 colleges and universities have been educated about mainframes. Additionally, IBM created an online meeting place, dubbed Destination z, where customers, system integrators, software vendors, and academic institutions can connect with experts, access development tools, and the latest mainframe software.

Another effort involves automating the mainframe to allow less technical administrators to run the system. IBM is putting automation inside System z's operating system. IBM has been adding wizards that make it easier for administrators to carry out commands and perform maintenance on the mainframe. The new release of System z, due in September, will include a lot more wizards -- similar to those found on Linux and Windows operating systems. IBM's goal is to cut down the training period of system administrators from three years to six months. Stallings said, "It's a big breakthrough in our industry and we can do it through automation."