Microsoft Mainframe Migration Alliance: Divide and conquer

The Mainframe Migration Alliance knows the zSeries community isn't ready to trash its mainframes just yet. But the recent migration of Canadian insurance firm Lombard to Windows shows that Microsoft is making strides in the market in can thrive in -- smaller MIPS mainframe shops.

The strategy Microsoft has for its Mainframe Migration Alliance (MMA) is a realistic one, simply because it has to be. Redmond is well aware of the fact that the mainframe has not only survived a death watch, it's here to stay.

For Microsoft, success, at least for now, means grabbing the "low-hanging fruit." The company plans to pluck customers from companies with small numbers of MIPS. The company hopes this will establish a firm credibility base among zSeries users, which it can build on.

According to Charles King, principal analyst for Hayward, Calif.-based Pund IT Research, companies running at 200 MIPS and under are the "sweet spot" for the Microsoft, and there are solutions in the Intel and x86 space that can offer near-mainframe performance. But because of its track record and robust security features, large organizations running on the mainframe aren't likely going to risk migrating their mission-critical applications away from a platform that goes down, on average, about once every 20 years.

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They might listen to a vendor pushing migration -- but that's about it.

"[Microsoft] has some low-hanging fruit they can pick … but to say that [x86] solutions are every bit as good as a mainframe is just marketing hype," King said. "They might be closer than in the past, but they still not coming close. … It's still the coyote and the roadrunner, with IBM as the roadrunner."

The insurance market is married to the mainframe, so the recent announcement that Lombard Canada Ltd., one of Canada's oldest property and casualty insurance firms, recently completed the first phase of a mainframe migration project has Redmond tickled pink.

Lombard, based in Toronto, is in the midst of a company-wide initiative to migrate approximately 15 to 20 applications off z/OS to the Windows Server 2003 operating system and SQL Server 2000. The company estimates the move will save it over $1 million a year as the software licensing slice of its overall IT budget will drop from 12% to 2-4%.

"It's extremely important from both the MMA (Mainframe Migration Alliance) and Microsoft perspective," said Randy Lenaghan, director of financial services for Microsoft Canada. "[The Lombard deal] brings us visibility worldwide."

There's a simple reason the mainframe never went the way of the dinosaur. It still works. Even Peter Howling, Lombard's vice president of corporate systems, who is a mainframe guy for 30 years, said the decision to move away from the mainframe had nothing to do with concerns over performance. But at the start of the decade, Lombard, a midrange company that averages $900 million a year in premiums, began moving its front-end applications off the mainframe and onto the Web using Java and .NET. It then pushed around 30% off its mainframe back-end processes to Intel boxes. When Howling and his team began evaluating Lombard's IT future, they quickly realized that it made more sense for the company to move away from the mainframe all together.

Part of the future Howling envisions includes bringing in new talent, which likely won't have a strong mainframe skill set. "We've outlived and outgrown the mainframe," Howling said. "With [recent] graduates, you start talking mainframe and they're not interested … that's where my talent pool is coming from, and they won't be learning COBOL in universities."

For the Lombard migration, Micro Focus International Ltd. chipped in with software that allowed Lombard to re-host mainframe applications on new boxes. And though the company is working closely with Microsoft, Micro Focus is not hell-bent on driving customers away from the mainframe, said Mike Gilbert, Micro Focus' vice president of marketing and director of product strategy. It's all about choice, he said, and besides, Micro Focus knows that most large mainframe customers aren't migrating anytime soon.

"Our position is not to drive people away from the mainframe, but to offer greater choice to run mission-critical applications on," Gilbert said. "Microsoft's mission is to get as many people on Windows as possible. … Our mission is to help people continue to exploit their investment in legacy applications and protect that investment."

Redmond knows the prospect of bringing the mainframe world -- currently dominated by IBM -- onto Windows is a bit of a pipe dream. But Microsoft has never been one to shoot for second.

"In the short term, the whole kit and caboodle is not realistic," said Microsoft's Lenaghan. "But if you look at customers like Lombard, that's the sweet spot. … It's a strategy that's evolving and over time as our credibility grows the opportunities open up for the large glasshouse with Microsoft technology."

"Over time, we're going to go after everything," Lenaghan added.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer

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