Asia investing in 'modern' mainframe

First introduced in the 1960s, mainframes remain hot among Asian companies, IBM exec says. But human resources are growing thin, notes analyst.

The mainframe is finding its way into emerging markets and is still holding strong not just globally, but also in Asia, says an IBM executive.

Richard Pape, mainframe systems executive at IBM Asia-Pacific, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that the company is witnessing a re-emergence of the mainframe. "We saw a range of all-new mainframe clients this year across the world, particularly in emerging markets [such as China and India]," he said.

During the release of its second-quarter results last month, IBM reported a 32 percent year-on-year increase in revenue from the System z mainframe server products.

There were several drivers for customers wanting to, or continuing to invest in mainframes, said Pape.

"Many companies are facing both space and power constraints in their data centers, and are clamoring for increased data center efficiency," he said. "Clients want data centers that are designed for specific processes, that can help them consolidate servers and improve their energy efficiency."

Pape added that many independent software vendors are now choosing to support their applications on the mainframe, thereby, enabling more options for users on the platform.

Increasing support for open standards is also driving demand for mainframes, he said. "The mainframe has been completely redesigned and is as modern--[if not] more modern--than any other platform out there," Pape said.

Mainframe critical for BI
In a recent e-mail note, Madan Sheina, senior analyst at Ovum, said Cognos' recent move to put business intelligence (BI) software on the IBM System z mainframe running Linux, indicates that mainframes are far from being legacy systems.

"Trusty mainframes are alive and kicking, and remain critical components of a company's IT infrastructure, especially for mission-critical high-volume transactional environments like financial services, where the mainframe has proven itself to be a trusted platform for housing large amounts of data in a secure and centrally managed environment," said Sheina.

Noting that global mainframe revenues are on the rise, he said: "We suspect that much of this growth is coming from existing mainframe users who are either upgrading or growing their mainframe usage."

BI vendors that fail to extend their reach to the mainframe could be "missing out on an opportunity", he added, as doing so can help enterprises "scale up the performance of sophisticated data analysis and other BI functions against larger volumes of data".

In addition, the mainframe platform complements BI applications, which is increasingly viewed as mission critical, he said.

Sheina explained: "BI is still a growing market. Pushing the software onto the mainframe helps companies to both protect and leverage their mainframe investments--that is, using BI to drive legacy modernization without replacement of the mainframe."

However, Sheina said there are challenges around mainframe usage. "Classic mainframe myths still exist today. Mainframes have traditionally been associated with high total cost of ownership; lack of advanced applications; inability to support real-time/low-latency processing; poor back-end data integration support; shortage of mainframe skills; and steep and inflexible development and maintenance curves," he said.

Some of these issues have been addressed, though. Sheina said modern mainframe architectures today have been fitted with new partitioning, virtualization and workload management techniques, and can host multiple operating systems, emulate other hardware platforms and have the capacity to support mixed BI workloads without stringing queries in parallel across server nodes that are complex to fine-tune and administer.

He added that vendors such as SAS and IBM, are also introducing new pricing strategies and open source deployment options to make mainframe computing more affordable.

Human resource, though, could prove a challenge. "There are simply not enough young, bright people wanting to learn mainframe skills over PHP, Java, Flash, and other 'hip' Web 2.0 technologies," said Sheina.

IBM's Pape noted, however, that the company has been working with educational institutions over the last few years to address resource issues.

To date, Big Blue has tie-ups with over 400 colleges and universities globally for its Academic Initiative for System z program, he said. In the region, IBM is partnering China's Huazhong University of Science and Technology and Singapore's Republic Polytechnic on their mainframe curricula. It is also involved in developing System z skills at Thailand's King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, Pape said.