Third-party software costs killing mainframe growth

A new Gartner survey reflects mainframe trends in third-party software costs, Linux adoption and IBM's struggle to bring new blood to the platform.

Attendees at the annual Gartner Data Center Conference sounded off in a survey published by the Stanford, Conn.-based

analyst firm this week. Mainframers weighed in on third-party software costs, Linux on the mainframe, IBM's efforts to get new blood in the job market and more.

Third-party mainframe software costs

For four years running, attendees at the Gartner conference listed third-party software costs as the No. 1 inhibitor to mainframe growth, according to Gartner analyst Mike Chuba.

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The third-party mainframe management vendors like CA Inc., BMC Software Inc. and Software AG have historically priced software based on the computing capacity of the machine. So mainframe shops with third-party systems management tools often face a hefty upgrade fee from their vendors when they buy new hardware -- regardless of how much capacity they will actually use.

"This is the tail that wags the dog on mainframe procurements," Chuba said. "In many situations, customers make decisions on what hardware they're going to buy based on their existing software contracts."

To combat the problem Big Blue has invested in systems management tools over the past few years, bringing more competitive pricing into play. Also, some systems management vendors are starting to do more subcapacity pricing, for example, CA has rolled out usage-based pricing plans in recent years.

Despite those gains, 38% of the mainframers surveyed said third-party software costs were the No. 1 inhibitor to mainframe growth in their organizations. Not that IBM's report card was a lot better -- 20% of attendees said IBM's software costs were holding their organizations back from more mainframe usage. And another 16% reported that upper management's perception that the mainframe is outdated was the problem.

Linux lags on Big Iron

The audience panned Linux on the mainframe in this survey -- a whopping 78% said that they hadn't tried Linux, tried Linux and didn't like it or implemented Linux and didn't use it. Of the remaining 22%, the majority of those shops were using Linux as a consolidation platform for Web-serving, mail or print/file applications.

"I was a little surprised that the audience didn't reflect bigger uptake on Linux adoption," Chuba said. "I've asked that question over the last several years, and that percentage is about the same as last year."

Chuba said conversations with customers in the past year suggested that there was momentum for Linux in 2006. Chuba cited Nationwide Insurance as an example.

In a session at the Gartner conference last November, the Columbus, Ohio-based insurer detailed its project of replacing hundreds of small servers with two IBM z9 mainframes. The mainframes were running the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), a specialty processor that enables the mainframe to host 40 Linux virtual servers.

"I definitely think there is demand for Linux on the mainframe," Chuba said. "I don't know that the survey mirrored what happened in 2006."

IBM System z specialty engines gain ground

While Linux lagged in the survey, survey takers have embraced IBM's specialty engines -- the System z Integrated Information Processor (zIIP) and the System z Application Assist Processor (zAAP).

The zIIP is designed to accept work from z/OS, which manages and directs the work between the general purpose processor and the zIIP. IBM said it will free-up general computing capacity and lower software costs for workloads, such as business intelligence, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) on the mainframe. IBM will not impose software charges on zIIP capacity.

According to IBM, the zAAPs are designed to operate asynchronously with the general processors to execute Java programming under control of the IBM Java Virtual Machine. This can help reduce the demands on general purpose processors, which may then be available for reallocation to other mainframe workloads.

The survey showed 40% of attendees were already using IBM specialty engines and 62% of attendees said they would be using specialty engines by next year.

Chuba said he expects IBM to keep going, introducing more new specialty engines as soon as possible. "It wouldn't surprise me to see a couple new engines introduced in '07," Chuba said. "They need to come up with another acronym though. The zAAP, zIIP thing has pretty much run its course."

Graying of the mainframe personnel

Experts have predicted a looming brain drain on mainframe skills as the bulk of the mainframe workforce marches toward retirement. Over the past year IBM has beat the drum on its academic initiative to bring new blood to the platform. While 14% of the survey takers were working with local colleges within the program, 38% had never even heard of it, and another 24% said it was too little too late.

"I know IBM is doing its darnedest to get the message out there, but I don't know that it's being heard," Chuba said. "It's one of the things we've told IBM over the last 12-18 months, whatever efforts they're making, there is more groundwork to be laid."

Part of the reason Chuba thinks the issue hasn't become more pressing is because the problem hasn't peaked yet. "People seem more inclined to work longer. I don't think we're there yet in crisis mode. Most people are still talking about this as seeing it on the horizon."

Hybrid System z machines becoming available

One of the final trends that the survey examined was IBM's pitch of "hybrid" System z machines. IBM's hybrid approach takes an earlier model z990 that came off of a lease somewhere, upgrades it to the current model and certifies the machine in factory tests.

Only 16% of the audience said that IBM had bid a hybrid system to them in 2006. IBM doesn't want to sell too many used z990s because they compete against new sales -- especially after spending $1.2 billion to develop the z9. But the hybrid approach works for the cost-sensitive customer, and it helps IBM's global services arm to unload Big Iron inventory.

According to Chuba, hybrids are going to be more central to IBM's marketing strategy. Customers who can't justify paying $2,000 per MIPS can get a hybrid at around $1,100 per MIPS.

"If I'm in that situation where I need 1,000 or 1,500 more MIPS, I would certainly ask IBM why they aren't bidding a hybrid," Chuba said. "One of the gating factors is the availability of boxes. There may only be a certain number of z990s coming off inventory at one time."

Let us know what you think about this article; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, Site Editor

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