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IBM anti-trust probe proves the mainframe matters

Every so often, a news story emerges -- usually after a quick blast of marketing and PR effort by IBM -- asserting that the mainframe is no longer dead. As IBM is now effectively the only purveyor of mainframe hardware, this can and often does follow the launch of a new rev of IBM's own Unix/Linux-based (once known as System i, including System p, and before that AS/400) mini-computers using the IBM Power CPU; internal rivalries run deep at IBM, it seems.
Written by Manek Dubash, Contributor on

Every so often, a news story emerges -- usually after a quick blast of marketing and PR effort by IBM -- asserting that the mainframe is no longer dead. As IBM is now effectively the only purveyor of mainframe hardware, this can and often does follow the launch of a new rev of IBM's own Unix/Linux-based (once known as System i, including System p, and before that AS/400) mini-computers using the IBM Power CPU; internal rivalries run deep at IBM, it seems.

And it is indeed the case that the mainframe is alive and kicking. According IDC, the mainframe business -- aka System z -- generated for IBM over $5 billion in 2008, almost as much cash as the entire high-end Unix server systems industry, which includes products from rivals HP, Sun and IBM itself. It's an amount of money worth arguing over.

It now looks like the US govt agrees - and is looking into whether Big Blue is strangling the competition.

Back in the 1960s, the mainframe was pretty much all there was in terms of computing resources for enterprises. Yes there were mini-computers, an architecture dominated by the PDP-8 and PDP-12 from DEC (or Digital, as it became), but a mainframe in the basement was the usual form for a big company, used for invoicing and billing, processing accounts and so on.

In those days, IBM certainly didn't have the playground to itself, although it did dominate massively. So the US government decided that IBM had too much power and started an anti-trust investigation that lasted over 10 years but was eventually dismissed in 1982.

The issue is now back on the table, with the announcement this week that the US Department of Justice is starting a new anti-trust investigation into whether IBM is abusing its market power. Among the issues triggering the probe are the failure to license IBM technology to third parties, punitive and threatening behaviour, and the blocking of cheaper alternatives.

According to one story, law professor Robert Lande reckons that this means the government is serious: "To say that it is historic is an understatement - it's not something they would do lightly."

It seems that not only is the mainframe not dead, the mainframe still matters in a political and economic sense. In many ways, IBM should be pleased.

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