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Mainframe TCO getting more bang for the buck, analyst report says

Mark Fontecchio

Don't expect Hannaford Bros. Co. to buy up land on the Columbia River anytime soon. Unlike Google, which built a sprawling campus of computers along the Oregon-Washington border with a giant data center and multistory cooling plants, Hannaford's does its computing using mainframes in two replicating data centers, one of which hasn't changed in a quarter century.

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While comparing the Scarborough, Maine-based grocery chain to Google is a bit of a stretch, Hannaford's two mainframes are running over 200 applications. In addition, a specialty processor, called the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), runs another 62 virtual Linux servers. If Hannaford was running those applications in an x86 environment, it would translate to hundreds of servers.

Chief Information Officer (CIO) Bill Homa claims the total cost of ownership (TCO) on the mainframe is nothing to snuff at. "It has come to the point where it's easier to manage my mainframe environment as my Windows environment," he said.

Earlier this year, IBM talked to analysts about the TCO benefits of the mainframe. Earlier this month, Illuminata Inc. analyst Wayne Kernochan released a report looking at the IBM claims. His conclusion? Big Blue has a point.

"Basically the trends, over the past five years especially, changed the mainframe TCO dramatically from what I could see," he said.

Kernochan said the IBM reports claim TCO advantages as high as 60% in certain scenarios involving x86 servers. Though he thinks those numbers are somewhat exaggerated, he agrees with the overall premise.

"In terms of TCO, there have been back and forth arguments over it for a long time," said Kristine Harper, an associate developer with mainframe software vendor Neon Enterprise Software Inc. (NESI) and a leader in zNextGen, an initiative by mainframe user group Share to build a younger community around big iron. "It is probably a high initial cost as far as buying the machine itself. But over the years, I think it could potentially save you millions of dollars."

But what has made mainframes more attractive from a TCO perspective?

Well first, there is the cost of the hardware. It's gone down. Homa said that in the early 1990s, before he started with the company, Hannaford's bought a mainframe for $7 million. Not exactly pocket change.

But now IBM offers a smaller mainframe, called the z9 Business Class, that starts at $100,000. Still not too cheap when compared to an x86 server that can go for about $1,000. But that initial cost has plummeted and the TCO followed.

Another major inhibitor to buying a mainframe over the years has been the cost of software licensing. But according to Kernochan, IBM has helped that drop by entering the fray with database administration tools that compete with companies like CA Inc. More competition has led to more competitive pricing.

Other factors that help the mainframe include real estate costs (the mainframe takes up less), and according to Kernochan's report, IBM's focus on cooling technology on the mainframe has helped it draw less power than it once did.

So, everyone should go out and buy a mainframe, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.

"It's hard to imagine an environment where a distributed environment is better," Homa said. "With the speed and cost and reliability of telecommunications equipment, why would you put your data and processing anywhere but in a central location?"

On the other hand, "The mainframe is definitely not for everyone," Harper said. "There are certain applications that simply might run better on a distributed machine. It all depends on the workload of your company and what kind of resources you have available." And even more important, according to Harper, companies need to have the people who have the knowledge to use the mainframe.

Kernochan, the author of the report, strikes a chord similar to Harper's.

"More often what you're going to say is that a particular application calls for a scale-out, scale-up or a combination of both," he said. "There is no one right answer. It's just that the mainframe seems to be the right answer in more situations."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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