Mainframes are enjoying a renaissance, the result of much-reduced entry prices and new cross-platform support. The “green screen” might seem like yesterday’s technology, but some enterprises are learning how useful big iron can be in powering the business applications of tomorrow.

Gone are the days of room-filling behemoths that sucked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in electricity and ran hotter than furnaces. Today’s new mainframes are leaner, meaner and useful in an increasingly wide range of applications, especially those involving big data. And for some, they remain the cheapest option.

The total cost of ownership for mainframes versus a distributed platform is hard to calculate. It depends on the size of the organization, the nature of the data it processes and whether or not the company can afford a little downtime, or indeed, any at all. But certainly, with IBM’s sub-$100,000 Z114 coming on the scene in 2011, the cost of entry into the mainframe world is now more affordable than ever.
“Mainframe is just like x86 servers,” says Jim Elliott, consulting sales specialist, systems and technology group at IBM Canada Ltd. “The price continues to drop, the hardware price. And every generation, we see that happen. So the cost of acquisition, the TCA, has come down—not just the TCO (Total Cost of Operation).”

Some enterprises, especially new firms without established IT infrastructure, are finding mainframes a compelling option, says Sonny Gupta, president and CEO of Maintec Technologies Inc., a company that provides remote management of IBM System z platforms as well as “pseudo-cloud” mainframe outsourcing services. His company has offices in Raleigh, N.C. and Bangalore, India, servicing the burgeoning demand for mainframe power around the world.

He says the short-term costs for businesses are undeniably lower than they were in the past. “Instead of spending, let’s say, $10 million that perhaps they have budgeted for,” he says, “maybe now they can procure the same hardware for $1 millon or a couple million dollars.”
And long-term, he adds, savings will depend on the size of the organization.“I think if the firm is large enough, and depending on the type of processing that they’re doing, the scale sort of starts tipping in favour of mainframe when you look at the total cost of operation.”
Frank Trovato, a research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Inc., says that the perception of mainframes as “million-dollar machines” is still true to an extent, but obscures the overall value they can provide in the data centre. He says an IBM Z196, for example can provide the power of thousands of “your traditional commodity Windows servers.”
From IBM’s sales statistics, it seems that many companies are recognizing this value. According to Tarun Bhasin, a research manager at IDC Canada, IBM mainframe revenue in Canada for 2011 was double that of the previous year. And in the same year, IBM [NYSE: IBM] found more than 75 new clients for System z machines around the world.
One major draw for 2012-era mainframe buyers is the recently acquired ability of IBM System z to run Linux and Windows platforms. It wasn’t hard for these machines to learn new tricks: in a sense, IBM mainframes have been doing virtualization since the 1960s, long before it was cool.
IBM doesn’t “care what platform you’re running,” says Trovato. He says that since 2000, when IBM introduced Integrated Facilities for Linux (IFL), mainframes have become more of a “hybrid system.”
“That basically means you can now really start to run non-traditional applications on mainframes, such as Web applications, business intelligence applications, even social media.”
IBM’s zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension (zBX) took this a step further, enabling support for Windows servers. This new versatility, says Trovato, means that businesses can dust off the mainframes they already own and move some of their software, like business intelligence tools, back onto them.
Another part of the reason for this resurgence of mainframes, says Trovato, could be that companies recognize the machines will prove themselves quite useful in the data centre of the future.
“Here’s an interesting thing,” he says. “When you start talking about cloud centralizing data centres, mainframe is actually very well suited for that. That might be part of the reason for renewed interest in mainframes. Certainly it’s one of our theories.”
Gupta says that the “mainframe world is moving towards cloud,” but adds that at present, his firm offers a form of managed service that isn’t entirely automated, still requiring the intervention of a human.
“We’re going after a market segment that is perhaps in a flux,” he says. “They’re re-looking at their mainframe platform and saying ‘do we want to migrate off the mainframe platform or do we want to continue? And if we want to continue, how do we want to manage this whole environment?’”
While there have been efforts (notably by IBM) to foster mainframe education and training around the world, managing the mainframe environment does indeed pose a challenge due to the lack of qualified personnel. However, Elliott says the fact that companies are outsourcing their mainframe computing to a company like Gupta’s is not necessarily a reflection of the popularity of the machines themselves.
“The outsourcing is not unique to the mainframes,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons people outsource their systems’ work to these other countries, like India. And mainframes are just one of those examples.”

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