By Garry Kranz The mainframe computer, suffering from perceptions it was too costly and too complex, is making a comeback. IBM's streamlined eServer zSeries is being positioned as Web superserver to capitalize on the rapid evolution of e-business. by Garry Kranz, contributor IBM Corp. for decades produced mainframe systems that provided the backbone of enterprise data processing. The company that just about invented computers had secured a lock on the market. That changed with the advent of Windows, the ubiquity of the desktop computer, and especially the adoption of Unix as a platform for e-commerce. IBM found itself on the outside peering in, and its System 390 mainframe came to be viewed as a venerable but cumbersome dinosaur: a costly, complex beast lumbering toward extinction. But the beast has re-emerged in a sleeker, more elegant form. IBM has re-christened the S/390 as the eServer z900 and equipped it with high-speed Web server features capable of running a variety of programming languages -- part of IBM's commitment to support open computing platforms like the Linux operating system. It is a new approach for a company that some viewed as behind the curve in Internet computing. "The first crack came with the advent of Unix. These servers began to offer many of the Java functions of the mainframe. But they aren't the same. Nothing is as good as a mainframe," says Mike Kahn, chairman of Clipper Group in Wellesley, Mass. IBM's move was spurred by the rapid growth of e-business. Despite the pervasiveness of Unix and Windows NT, most corporate data -- some estimates put it as high as 75 percent -- still resides on mainframe computers. "E-business is the big thing," notes Steve Samson, a senior technical staff member with Candle Corp. in Palm Desert, Calif. "And where is the data stored that e-business companies are running on? It's on a mainframe." Curing 'technology ogada?'
Internet technologies are behind the rejuvenation of the mainframe. As companies became more global in orientation, they needed to centralize their computing operations. "Because they are always open, their computing environments are less predictable. They also have a greater volume of activity, which means they need more powerful servers with greater intelligence," says Pete McCaffrey, director of IBM's E Server z Series in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. IBM is reworking its image as a proprietary bully by investing $1 billion -- and scores of software code writers -- to develop the open source Linux platform. IBM wants to devise common open computing platforms on which it could sell its hardware, software applications, middleware and an array of technology services. The dynamic partitioning capacity of the z900 builds on the mainframe's known high reliability. It allows tens of thousands of virtual Linux servers to be created, maximizing productivity by enabling IT managers to allocate system resources that aren't being used. Each partition could run a separate application, whether it's Linux, Java or the z900 operating system. Using a mainframe, certain large-scale computing enterprises such as service providers could serve hundreds of thousands of users on one machine. "If you have an Apache Webserver and are running a large server farm, then every time a customer requests more space you need to buy a new box. With the mainframe, you click 'configure' on a piece of software and add a partition -- a slice of the machine -- dedicated to that customer," says Kahn. Let's presume a customer is making a purchase using your e-commerce application. If the purchase is being attempted during peak load times, the customer may experience frustrating delays and decide to forgo the purchase altogether. By removing the processor boundaries, partitioning enables applications to "steal" resources allocated to other dormant applications, thus avoiding bottlenecks that could cost business. "IBM has opened up the environment by providing support for all new programming languages. That's made it a very flexible platform. With the z Series, you use capacity as you need it, then shut it off when you don't, so it doesn't kill you in software charges for the peak hours," says Steve Josselyn, an analyst with International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. Being able to instantly add capacity also is crucial for companies migrating operations to the Web. "It makes the time to deployment [happen] in seconds, as opposed to the rack-mounted approach of adding new server boxes. When you're trying to get your brand on the Web, time to deployment is everything," says McCaffrey. Dale Vecchio, resource director of applications development at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group, says the z900's ability to run different platforms alleviates "technology ogada" for information technology managers. "A multitiered implementation is a pretty complex environment [that involves] collapsing some of the processing onto middleware. The problem is not the platform; it's the application paradigm associated with the mainframe," says Vecchio. The operating system for IBM mainframe servers runs on a platform known as Parallel Sysplex, a complex architecture with the capacity to link different machines. The architecture enables scaling beyond one data box. "The mainframe combines Parallel Sysplex with the attributes of a client/server: great security, good scalability, and fantastic workload capacity," says John Phelps, a Florida-based research director for Gartner Group. Not for everybody
Small to mid-size companies still are more likely to benefit by using server farms, mainly due to the cost and overall complexity of running a mainframe. Despite all the tweaking, IBM's mainframe still requires significant up-front investment. The low end of the z900 series starts around $750,000, with customized, scaleable versions costing considerably more. Technical integration also is a challenge. Web developers primarily learn Unix, Java and Windows, but most are not proficient in the sophisticated COBOL-based origin of the mainframe. "The mainframe is not a viable option for small to medium-sized operations, because of the overall cost and complexity," notes Mary Cicalese, an analyst with Jupiter Communications in Redwood City, Calif. "And the overall enterprise adoption of Linux hasn't gotten much traction." IBM has made an effort to change its pricing policies to bring licensing costs more in line with customers' expectations. It applies a complex algorithm to companies that make incremental purchases of processor power, known as million instructions per second, or MIPS. Each increment of MIPS added to the mainframe lowers the average cost of computing for an entire data center, says Kahn. Phelps notes another obstacle for IBM: the lack of enthusiasm for Linux by independent third-party software vendors. Most companies choose to buy off-the-shelf applications rather than incur the cost of developing their own software. Phelps says IBM needs to provide software vendors with an incentive to embrace open computing, which more and more customers are demanding. WebSphere, IBM's e-commerce software suite, attempts to address this by providing a universal platform based on open technologies. The suite integrates e-commerce features for large and small businesses that can be linked to existing systems. It enables scaling from devices like wireless application protocol (WAP) phones to a mainframe. An enhanced version of WebSphere was launched in March, with support for Java2 Enterprise Edition. IBM also faces continuing challenges from Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, and others. Its archrival, Sun Microsystems, recently unveiled a line of mainframe-like Web servers with hard-partitioning capacity. Analysts say Sun plans to equip the workload manager with dynamic partitioning in about one year. Despite that, mainframes lend themselves to large computing environments, such as those needed by Internet service providers, application service providers, and other technology hosting companies. That means the z900 is likely to gain traction, especially in e-commerce. Notes Samson: "In today's Web environment, business is not just about serving Web pages. It's about serving transactions, and business transactions are what the mainframe does better than anything else." Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology writer based in Richmond, Va. MORE ON THIS TOPIC Search390.com is a comprehensive online source of information about IBM mainframe computers and their applications. Read more about using Linux for Internet and e-commerce applications in searchEnterpriseLinux.com's Best Web Links.