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Microsoft migration alliance has merit, but won't sway diehards

Microsoft's expanded alliance gives users the tools they need to move from the mainframe to the Windows platform. But can it actually persuade folks to switch?

A Microsoft mainframe migration alliance may be a boon to data center managers ready to swap their mainframe for a crop of Windows servers, but it isn't likely to fuel a mass exodus.

Still, Microsoft's efforts to move into the data center, an environment traditionally dominated by the mainframe, is taking shape, observers said. In fact, many predict that within the next five years, Windows will be the biggest player in that arena.

Maybe so. But moving critical applications off of the mainframe onto another platform can be a complex task, especially for applications that were written in COBOL and CICS. And while experts said only a small percentage of shops are likely to move, those that do will want to tap into all the resources they can get.

Market demand

"It was the mainframe people that convinced us to provide something unified," said Tim O'Brien, senior product manager, platform strategy group, Microsoft.

The Mainframe Migration Alliance, formed in April 2004, is a community of software vendors and service providers armed with information and products to help mainframe defectors.

According to O'Brien, growing interest in the initiative spurred Redmond to announce this week the addition of 12 new partners to the alliance and a newly launched community Web site

The alliance roster now totals 21 companies and includes heavy hitters in the mainframe world such as Micro Focus International, Fujitsu Software Corp., and EDS – many of which are long-time Microsoft partners.

The Web site offers a variety of resources and materials to help shops migrate their legacy mainframe systems to Windows Server, including case studies, white papers, directories and tools for calculating return on investment (ROI).

"The initiative is to make them aware of the choices available to them, choices a lot of data center managers may not be aware of," O'Brien said. ["The initiative] is also meant to get shops connected to the partners who are best suited to their situation."

Although Windows migration is a sore subject among many data center ranks, critics said Microsoft is in no position to put the mainframe out of business.

More than marketing hype?

"The underlying question is not so much if Microsoft can round up the usual suspects to help them," said Wayne Kernochan. "But can they really move them off the mainframe?"

Despite increasing numbers of Windows servers in the data center, the mainframe is not losing ground. In fact, mainframe revenues rose 44% (year to year), according to IBM's latest earnings report. The mainframe now represents the largest growth segment in the company's hardware division.

O'Brien said he doesn't have an expectation (at least in terms of percentages) of what kind of impact this latest alliance would have on mainframe shops and IBM. But he stressed that the pressing issues, such as cost and performance that force mainframe shops to consider alternatives, are not going to go away. As a result, he said more mainframers will take that leap.

"We're trying to have an impact on customers," O'Brien said. "If it's at other vendors' expense, so be it, but what we're doing here is meeting customer demand."

Kernochan agrees there's merit to Microsoft's efforts. But the percentage of takers is small -- maybe 20% to 30% of the mainframe installed base will be open to the pitch, he said.

"Microsoft is doing this because they're firmly convinced there are some low hanging fruit they can pick off," Kernochan said.

Despite the difficulty in migrating, it can be done and is being done. According to Kernochan, some shops are seeing a 50% reduction in cost.

Moving has merit

John Lawson, chief information officer at New Orleans-based Tulane University, did it and he has no regrets.

Lawson wanted to get out from under a propriety database running on the mainframe and $250,000 in licensing fees. But an attempt to convert the apps while still on the mainframe was complicated and resulted in a number of "technical issues." The company working with Lawson to covert the apps, finally recommended moving off the mainframe onto Windows.

"We had reservations," Lawson said. "Windows was not our original intent but after we looked at it, it looked like the right thing to do. In less than two months we had it converted COBOL onto a Windows platform and users couldn't tell any difference. ROI was less than year."

Tulane's data center still runs mainframes but not for long. Lawson said within two years all his applications, including payroll and human resources, will be taken off the mainframe.

"I like mainframes," he said. "They're powerful, robust and secure. But my philosophy is to find the right OS for the app that you're running, and I think the winds have shifted. In this case we can find equal or better performance for less operating cost."

Lawson, who has worked with a mainframe for many years, said the security is a concern in the Windows environment, but good data center managers will pay attention to security no matter what the platform.

"We still run a data center that is secure and we still operate a data center like it should be operated. It doesn't mean it's the exclusive [domain] of one vendor -- not in this day and age. I have people who really like the mainframe, but they're also very good employees and they know how to learn new things and work better and smarter."

If nothing else, the alliance gives Microsoft firmer ground to stand on when it comes to trust.

"To say that you're going to let Microsoft handle your big mainframe apps, you've got to trust that Microsoft is going to be there for you and hold your hands forever and ever -- something IBM has been known for years," said Kernochan. "The trust comes along with this alliance."

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