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Is IBM's cunning mainframe weaving magic?

Mainframes have never gone away, despite what many in the PC business would like to think. And as servers start to look less and less like PCs and, as they consolidate in the datacentre using techniques such as virtualisation, increasingly like mainframes, you'll soon start asking why you should bother with servers at all?
Written by Manek Dubash, Contributor on

Mainframes have never gone away, despite what many in the PC business would like to think. And as servers start to look less and less like PCs and, as they consolidate in the datacentre using techniques such as virtualisation, increasingly like mainframes, you'll soon start asking why you should bother with servers at all?

The arguments in favour are that they're flexible, you can throw different workloads at them on different OSes, and that you can divide and group them according to to requirements on a fairly granular basis. All that's true up to a point, although virtualisation rather fuzzes up the edges. Where one physical machine ends and the next one begins is becoming somewhat irrelevant as virtual machines are now capable of shuffling around the system, depending on workload demand and resource availability.

It's true that this level of automation remains both complex and rare so far, as the tools to make all this happen seamlessly in a heterogeneous environment are still under development. But as long as you buy all your gear from one vendor and use their management packages, you've got a reasonable chance of making it all work -- that, at least, is what vendors tell me. The future is visible.

Back to mainframes: IBM recently launched a new hybrid mainframe, the zEnterprise System, which can incorporate blade servers, managing them as if they were elements within the mainframe. Designed for complex database work, such as web applications and business analytics, the water-cooled machine houses an astonishing 96 CPUs running at a record-breaking 5.2GHz, delivering 60 percent more compute power than its predecessor while using the same amount of energy, according to Red Monk's James Governor.

What's interesting is the way that it's designed to blur even further the distinction between discrete servers -- if you can call blade servers discrete -- and the mainframe, as it's designed to manage and control them directly. If you're already a mainframe shop, this is going to prove very tempting as a way to swallow up more of those pesky servers, although since the payback on one of these beasts can be as long as a decade, don't expect to see them selling by the tens of thousands.

Even if you're not a mainframe shop, the idea of a central point of management and control is very alluring, as management is increasingly the key to reducing both costs and risk. IT has gone through some contortions over the last 30 years, from its Big Bang decentralisation in the 80s and 90s to an growing implosion back to the centre over the last ten years. So the argument that IT is a personal choice holds no water any more: money talks and the money says that it's cheaper in the long run to lock IT assets up in a secure place where they can be properly managed and woven into a single fabric that supports the organisation in all areas.

Big Blue wants to make sure the mainframe is threaded into that new fabric. As an interim step to the even more centralised infrastructure of the future, the zEnterprise System looks like it's going to do the business. Servers or mainframes? It's getting increasingly hard to tell them apart.

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