The New York City-based publishing house is in the middle of a three-part changeover from its Cobol-crunching IBM 9672-RB5 to an Intel-based Unisys ES7000 running Microsoft SQL Server.
The decision to switch came about two years ago when officials, already cognizant of high mainframe costs, began to realize the growth of their company was beginning to conflict with the size of its shoes, so to speak. But with stability a concern and the looming task of converting five million lines of code, the pressure was on to make the right move.
"The challenge of rewriting everything -- it was a daunting task," said Mike Grant, Simon & Schuster vice president of application development. "But we needed to do something … We are running flat out on our machine right now. We're almost 90% to 100% capacity all the time."
Mainframes have been around forever and know how to get things done their own way, but, especially for smaller companies, the elegance that makes them useful can also be unwieldy to upkeep.
Advantages of the data center's elder statesman -- stability, the ability to scale and flex in the face of server sprawl and new workloads -- can be offset by premium hardware costs. Complicated architecture that goes back 20 years, combined with a skills base in decline, also means potentially high labor expenses.
Grant said he was surfing for answers when he stumbled across Tokyo-headquartered Fujitsu Software Corp., a specialist in assisting migrations like CICS applications to .NET and mainframe batch applications to Windows.
The latter was a crucial difference when proofs of concept were drawn and discussed with both Fujitsu and U.K.-based Micro Focus Ltd., a similar migration outfit, Grant said.
"We were very impressed with both, but the problem we saw with Micro Focus -- which may have since changed -- was a lot of emulation software," Grant said. "We wanted to standardize our .NET environment, and the Fujitsu model more closely aligned with our vision, in terms of running Visual Studio and having it play well with VB [Visual Basic] and C#."
After recently transferring over its royalty system -- and working with India-based Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. to convert its DB2 to SQL server -- the final hulking shift comes soon for Simon & Schuster -- moving its main order processing system. But the true test will come late summer, a traditional season of frenzy that will test both nerves and networks as publishers push to move product in time for schools reopening.
"Until then, we'll still be kind of nervous -- last year our mainframe was so backed up that often systems weren't coming up until 10 the next morning," Grant said. "But right now we're seeing jobs perform so much better. We are really seeing some performance gains, we've been pleased, and all the vendors are very confident."
Indeed, Andrew Mackenzie, strategic alliance manager for Fujitsu Software, sees no gray in the environment.
"The thing about migrations is you're either a hero or a goat," Mackenzie said. "With mission-critical apps, it can be very scary to turn off the mainframe. But five years ago there was a lot more risk. There's been relentless performance gains in microprocessors. It comes down to if I'm the CIO who's got this thing that's sucking up 60% of my budget -- you're either going to migrate or drown."
IT research firm Gartner Inc. recently predicted 80% of today's smaller mainframe environments will move away by 2010. And though the sentiment of that forecast is nothing new -- bashing mainframes is practically a pastime in some circles. Detractors today predict doom in the face of the system's recent resurgence, exemplified by double-digit revenue gains since 2003 of the IBM's zSeries.
"If someone hasn't looked at a mainframe in a while, they should look again," said zSeries product director Collette Martin. "There's an awful lot of flexibility. And for the customers who are very small, with older mainframes, those who are struggling in that respect but looking for a value proposition to move forward, it is considerably less expensive to run today's mainframes."
Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Joe Spurr, News Writer