The rumors of the demise of the mainframe are greatly exaggerated

Although suppliers of midrange machines would have us believe that the mainframe is dead, IBM's System z continues to grow.
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor

IBM' System and Technology Group (STG) offered analysts an update on the success of its System z family of mainframes. I wasn't at all surprised to learn that current users are buying more of these systems and new customers are buying them.

What IBM had to say

IBM presented a list of impressive statistics designed to prove that the mainframe is alive, continuing to serve in its original mission of being an organization's central computing system, support for massive number of business transactions or platform for very large, centralized databases. It is also claiming new workloads because of its tightly integrated management and security capabilities.

Here are a few tidbits from IBM's presentation:

  • Total installed System z capacity continues to grow.
  • The centralized, unified management that is offered by IBM zEnterprise Unified Resource Manager, is attracting new customers. Unified Resource Manager makes it possible for a System z configuration to manage blade systems running AIX, Windows or Linux
  • IBM continues to innovate in the areas of system to system communication allowing hybrid mainframe/UNIX/Windows/Linux environments to provide high levels of performance. This allows organiztions to re-centralize distributed applications to reduce overall costs.
  • IBM's zEnterprise system has been purchased by over 120 new customers, customers from all over the world and in IBM's target markets


Time and again, I hear suppliers of midrange systems, such as Cisco, Dell, or Oracle/Sun, present the story that their systems can address any computing problem from the very small to the very large. Although it is often unspoken today, their message to big organizations is that they can discard their mainframe installations and move those workloads onto clusters or grids of midrange systems without worry.

Why is it, then, that IBM's System z family continues to grow? Why do mainframe configurations find their way into the data centers of new customers? The answer appears to be the same now as it was back in the 1970s and 1980s.

For some workloads, a single, very large system configuration works better and is easier to manage that a veritable herd of industry standard systems. If one examines cost of ownership or return on investment studies, staff-related costs of administration and operations far outweigh the cost of systems and software. So, any platform that minimizes those costs, can actually lower overall costs.

What IBM has done is to make the mainframe a hub of computing that can support and manage applications designed for mainframes, for UNIX, for Windows and for Linux in a unified and secure way. IBM also provides tools that allow highly distributed systems to be managed in a more unified way as well.

If anything, IBM faces the challenge of having many good solutions that can be used individually or together. This complex product portfolio can be quite daunting for some.

The key challenge IBM faces, of course, is getting IT decision makers who grew up using industry standard systems and thinking that mainframes were holdovers from some per-historic time to actually become aware of what these systems can do today, compare their own company's costs with and without the mainframe and come to the decision that today's mainframe is a valuable addition to the data center, not a relic of the past. IBM's Smarter Planet marketing campaign is designed to do just that.

Can IBM succeed in re-introducing mainframes into an industry standard world? The facts appear to say yes.

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