Happy 40th: IBM celebrates mainframe’s anniversary with a new model

In 1964 IBM Corp. gave birth to the System/360 mainframe, a new kind of enterprise computer.

Until then mainframes were specially-built to run one application. The 360 offered the ability to run multiple applications on a server that was also a member of a family of computers: When a 360

needed to be expanded or replaced, the customer could buy or lease another rather have one custom-built.

This month, on the 40th anniversary of that launch and in the face of the popularity of RISC- and x86-based servers, the company released one of its great-grandchildren: The z890, a member of what is now the renamed third generation zSeries.

“”There’s no doubt the mainframe is not dying,”” said Francois Lachance, a IBM Canada business unit sales executive for zSeries.

The company thinks the z890 – yours for a minimum $250,000 or a $9,000 a month lease – will be in demand enough that it’s on a cross-Canada road show to hype the machine, hitting Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

Target sectors are banking, insurance utility and communications industries.

Among its features, the z890 has 28 capacity settings, which IBM says will let customers pay only for server capacity used, and an optional processor for running Java applications.

Still, there are only three zSeries resellers in the country and their market is shrinking. IDC Canada says that as recently as six years ago IBM had competition in mainframes. Now it has virtually the entire market as companies who don’t need a system that will run a bank find ways to shift workloads to much less expensive commodity servers running Unix, Linux and Windows.

In 1998, mainframes accounted for $260 million in Canadian sales representing 20 per cent of the server market; last year that dropped to $100 million and nine per cent of the market.

The mainframe is “”not dead by any means,”” says Greg Ambrose, an IDC Canada server market research analyst. “”It’s still a viable business, and significantly contributing to IBM’s bottom line.””

But it’s future will be marked by “”steadily declining”” market share over the next five years, he said.

In a recent report, Gartner Inc. noted that no new software companies are pledging support for the zSeries operating system, z/OS. It also noted that IBM will end support for the older OS/390 2.10 in September, which will pressure users to upgrade to the zSeries – an expensive venture. According to one news report, that has prompted competitors including Sun Microsystems and Microsoft to try to lure customers off their mainframes.

While Gartner says the mainframe remains a solid base for legacy applications and select emerging apps, it also advises enterprises to watch for opportunities to switch workloads to other systems.

None of this seems to bother Les Davids, general manager of GlassHouse Systems Inc. of Toronto, one of the IBM zSeries resellers which does sales, planning, sizing and implementations. Leasing is handled through IBM.

(The other two Canadian zSeries resellers are Novipro Inc. of Montreal and California-based Cornerstone Systems Inc., which has a Mississauga, Ont. office. GlassHouse also has offices in Philadelphia and Chicago.)

Davids’ mainframe business brings in 85 per cent of the company’s revenues – the company also carries p- and x-Series servers — and will likely do so for the next several years, he said.

“”The mainframe business is maturing,”” said Davids, “”but IBM’s making some significant changes to it which we all hope will make the platform grow. Where we see growth coming from is that you can run Linux on this box as well as traditional applications, and you can bring more workloads like Java that you’d be doing development work on today.””

While GlassHouse started in the early 1990s, Davids was linked to mainframes 20 years earlier when he was hired out of university to work on System/360s. Those were the years of punch cards and batch processing, he recalled.

The 360 was succeeded by the 370, the 390 and last year by the zSeries.

Was it a tough machine to work with? “”Hard to answer,”” Davids replied. “”Some days I can’t get my ThinkPad to function the way I want.””

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer. Former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, Howard has written for several of ITWC's sister publications, including ITBusiness.ca. Before arriving at ITWC he served as a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times.

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