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Mainframes In The Age Of The Cloud

Big iron is under relentless pressure to prove its value in an x86 world. We look at five ways to bring it into the distributed data center.

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Mainframes In The Age Of The Cloud

Not long ago, x86 servers couldn't compete with the reliability of mainframes. Those x86 servers failed. They were time-consuming to recover. Their memory chips died; their hard disks went south. Insurance, banking, telecom and other industries that needed rock-solid transaction processing, resource segregation and security had little choice but to buy big iron. Mainframes were expensive, but their uptimes were, and still are, measured in years.

That was then. In today's virtualized world, x86 systems compete with mainframes on price and functionality. And with tight budgets the rule of the day, mainframe shops are being asked: Can migrating to x86 save us money?

Consider several factors in answering this question: your sunk investment in hardware, software and management, as well as IBM's recent z/OS investment and its focus on hosted Linux.

Three-quarters of the 256 respondents to InformationWeek's 2012 State of the Data Center Survey say their organizations have at least some applications running on mainframes or proprietary RISC systems, and of those shops, 28% say this percentage will increase and 48% say it will remain the same. Drilling down, 27% of the 534 respondents to our most recent State of Servers Survey say they have IBM zSeries architectures in use and plan to keep them.

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In hopes of putting the brakes on defections, IBM budgeted more than $100 million starting in 2006 to refresh its flagship System z mainframe lines. That investment showed clear returns with System z revenue increasing 56% last year over the previous year's revenue. IBM saw mainframe growth in emerging markets and with mainframe hosted Linux in particular, IBM senior VP and CFO Mark Loughridge said on the company's January earnings call.

Some of that growth came from pent-up demand among customers waiting for the refresh, but big iron is still holding its own in certain sectors against racks of commodity x86 systems. And it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are several ways, as we'll review later in this article, to integrate your existing mainframes with x86 systems to increase your overall ROI.

The Mainframe Advantage

Mainframes, which generated $1.8 billion in sales in the fourth quarter of 2012, still account for 12.3% of all server revenue. Behind those figures is the fact it's still a challenge to engineer virtualized systems to match the reliability and integrity of mainframes for OLTP, DB2 and other workloads. For a credit-card processing center or a banking transaction posting engine, the mainframe has a strong value proposition regardless of whether the rest of the infrastructure runs in a newfangled hybrid cloud. Companies are also loath to write off their sunk investments in mainframe applications, especially where they're still doing the job.

To read the rest of the article,
download the InformationWeek April special issue on mainframes.

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