Mainframes Take Back Center Stage

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Oct 25, 2007


Mainframes have always been known for their stability.

While x86-based servers continue to be the largest area of server growth, mainframes are not so quietly making a comeback.

"Anyone who has dealt with servers and their associated software and operating systems know they take a lot of care to keep up and running," said Dennis Carter, ERP systems manager for electronics manufacturer LaBarge in St. Louis. "With our mainframe, one IPL [Initial Program Load — a formal term for booting a computer] a week keeps us going on a 99.9 percent service level."

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Not only do mainframes keep users free from Blue Screens of Death, but they also have survived the predicted demise of the entire platform. Instead of giving way to client/server and Web applications, in many cases, mainframes are now driving the applications.

"What has transpired with the adoption of SOA [Service Oriented Architecture] and Web services is the ability to more fully exploit the robust nature of the mainframe platform to handle multiple, parallel workloads," said Gregg Willhoit, chief software architect for DataDirect Technologies, a mainframe integration software firm in Bedford, Mass. "The net result is the mainframe is now more of an equal participant in the overall IT infrastructure."

Computer Comeback

Although x86-based servers continue to be the largest area of server growth, mainframes are making a comeback after years of decline.

"RISC-Itanium Unix servers were weak for the year on a global basis, falling 1.6 percent in shipments and 0.8 percent in revenue," said Gartner Research Vice President Jeffrey Hewitt. "Mainframes had the strongest revenue growth of any segment for the year, pushing ahead 3.9 percent over 2005."

For years, million-dollar IBM zSeries mainframes have dominated the mainframe market, but there are an increasing number of alternatives. Last year, Big Blue rolled out its z9 Business Class servers which, starting at around $100,000, are affordable for midsize businesses. Fujitsu's GlobalServer line of Unix mainframes use a compact design that fits up to 16 CPUs and 64B main memory on a single board. The Fujitsu GS21 600 delivers up to 3000 MIPS. Unisys has its ClearPath Dorado and Libra Servers, which can scale up to 32 processors and allow partitions to run in Unisys OS 2200, Windows and Linux.

"The zSeries is a primary comparison point because ClearPath and zSeries are both mainframes with mature operating environments that are consistently ranked by leading analysts as having 'best in class' feature/functionality," said Rod Sapp, director of marketing for ClearPath systems and solutions at Unisys.

While some machines are clearly mainframes, the line is blurring between the high end of the midrange — such as IBM's System i (iSeries, AS/400) servers or HP's Superdome (with 128 64-bit processor cores, 2TB of RAM and 192 I/O slots) — and the bottom of the mainframe product ranges. As the Hutchinson Dictionary of Computing, Multimedia and the Internet explains in its mainframe definition, "Because of the general increase in computing power, the differences between the mainframe, supercomputer, minicomputer and microcomputer (personal computer) are becoming less marked."

Many of today's powerful midrange servers, even those running x86 processors, can now outperform the mainframes of a few years ago.

For example, United Pipe and Supply, a wholesaler with 33 locations in the Pacific Northwest, uses an AS/400 to house its primary database and ERP system. "It may not technically classify as a mainframe, but it is the primary computing platform in the company," explained CIO Mike Green. "We have a portfolio of applications that surround it, that are integrated with it, that talk to it and that use it as a primary source. Our data marts, our secondary systems, our Web applications, all look to that AS/400 and pull information from it, either in real-time or overnight in a batch operation."

Copy Cats

As mainframe capabilities have expanded, however, they have left some users behind. Atlantic Cape Community College (ACCC) in southern New Jersey, for example, started running its enterprise applications on an 11 MIPS (Million Instructions per Second) IBM 9221 191 mainframe in 1994. That was enough processing power to meet the college's needs, but IBM has since stopped producing mainframes in that performance range.

"When IBM started putting the pressure on us to go forward with the new zSeries mainframes, the costs were prohibitive, and the jump in MIPS [from 11 to 80] was too extreme for what we needed," said Patrick Sweeney, ACCC's director of administrative computing.

This resulted in a search for a less-expensive alternative. ACCC eventually settled on an 18 MIPS tServer from T3 Technologies of Tampa, Fla. The tServers, which now scale up to 200 MIPS, use x86 processors but have middleware that enables them to emulate 32-bit IBM mainframes. The company also sells 64-bit systems that scale to 350 MIPS. This way, the school was able to continue running its familiar enterprise software but was able to partake in the advantages associated with more modern architectures.

"It does everything that the mainframe does but offers so much more flexibility in terms of things like backup capabilities, connecting laster printers and direct attached storage," said Sweeney. "It opened a whole new world to me to take advantage of things I never could afford on a mainframe."

A New Face

Better interfaces are also letting mainframes integrate with client/server and Web applications. ACCC still uses terminal emulation software on its PCs to let time interact with the mainframe, but other companies are putting GUIs on mainframe applications.

"Users of corporate systems have come to expect the jazz of rich user interfaces and the experiences promised and delivered though Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and RSS," said Murray Laatsch, enterprise architect for Online Business Systems in Calgary, Alberta.

LaBarge wanted to keep its OS/390 enterprise software and add additional functionality. "Implementing a new ERP system is expensive, risky, and sometimes you have to shut down parts of the business for a while," said George Hayward, Director of Information Systems at LaBarge, an electronics and electromechanical equipment manufacturer headquartered in St. Louis. "We didn't really need new guts, I just wanted to find a better way for people to get at the data."

To improve the interface, and the access to the data, he installed Information Builders' WebFOCUS business intelligence software along with IBM's WebSphere portal software. This offered employees an easy way to run their own queries and analysis, without having to wait for the IT organization to print out a report.

"It has completely changed the way we handle the data," says Hayward. "Before we just reported on things after the fact; now we can do real-time analysis and see what is going on in our factories as it is happening."

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