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Can mainframes share the spotlight with Windows?

If mainframe revenues are up, why are we still hearing reports about the mainframe being dead and Windows taking over the data center? Could it be that these two platforms can actually exist in harmony?

Industry observers who assert Windows is dominant in the data center are way off base, say some users, and point to recent reports that mainframe revenues continue to rise. Mainframe revenue continue to increase since IBM introduced its z990 mainframe in May 2003.

These kinds of numbers would be astounding in any kind of market. But the fact that it's the mainframe –- traditionally an area reserved for Big Iron -- it's almost unbelievable, particularly given reports of how the Windows server is making its way into the data center.

But many users don't buy into analyst predictions that mainframes will be replaced by Windows for enterprise applications.

"With over 25 years in the computer field, I have about as much confidence in analysts' reports as I have in my chances of winning at the casino tonight," said Dan Mulligan, IT technical support consultant at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Baton Rouge, La. "It could happen, but I doubt it."

Numbers game

Before pronouncing the mainframe dead, users need to take a look at exactly what analysts are measuring,, said experts

"At the end of the day what it really comes down to is how you read the numbers," said Charles King, research director, Sageza Group, Union City, Calif.

According to Carl Greiner, senior vice president of technology research services for Meta Group Inc. of Stamford, Conn., Windows (as well as Linux) will become increasingly important to the data center as operating systems become more mature, reliable and continue to make good economic sense. In fact, he said that while Linux and Windows account for about 35% of data center capacity today, within the next few years, that number will reach 67%.

While a 44% increase in revenue doesn't mean a 44% increase in sales, reports that Windows is dominating the data center may have to be examined, King said. In terms of numbers, it can't be argued that Windows is winning in the data center. But, he doesn't buy that if Windows wins, the mainframe must be losing.

In fact, what's increasingly apparent is that each provides a vital role in the data center and can exist harmoniously.

The simple truth is the entire space is expanding, and Windows is getting a large share of the new business, Mulligan noted. Still, data center managers insist they depend on the mainframe for the bulk of their critical apps and have no intention of changing that.

"It's not a matter of mainframes or Windows," Mulligan said. "In large data centers it's a matter of which one best fits the objectives."

In fact, many applications simply can't be implemented on Windows, because Windows is still too immature to handle them. In the case of other applications, one would be foolish to use a mainframe because it would be an obscene case of overkill.

"Before we start looking at this as some kind of sports event, we need to back off and consider what is practical," he said.

Room enough for two

While it's unlikely IBM would admit that Windows is dominating the data center (even in terms of numbers), Big Blue executives do concede that Windows and the mainframe can share the data center -- in fact, they encourage multiple platforms.

"Just as the mainframe is a critical part of the data center, you have the front-end technology on Intel boxes -- and that's critical, too," said Collette Martin, director zSeries strategy and product marketing, IBM.

Still, Martin insists the mainframe is not losing ground to Windows despite reports of a growing presence in the data center and quickly points to strong mainframes revenues.

"Obviously, we are seeing a great deal of success in the new mainframes we're shipping," she said. "We are not seeing lots of applications leaving the mainframe; in fact, quite the opposite."

Martin said the rise in mainframe revenue didn't happen by accident.

Without a doubt, IBM's $1 billion-plus investment in the zSeries platform has paid off. Experts agree that aggressive new pricing models, technological advances and the debut of new systems like the z890 are the reasons for the dramatic rise in revenue.

"We worked really hard for this," she said.

So while the mainframe is the heart of the data center, Martin said IBM recognizes the role that a heterogeneously environment plays in the data center. This isn't necessarily a numbers game, she said, it's about matching the right system for the right need. And although IBM has expanded the role of the mainframe, it's now more versatile than ever, there's a place for other platforms -– hence an apparent contradiction in actually who owns the data center.

IBM is under extreme pressure to maintain the mainframe's growth rate as critics sit by and wait for IBM's bubble to burst. And as needs within IT shift, IBM may not be able to hold on for much longer. Indeed, a 44% increase may be impossible to match.

"Clearly, we get real excited knowing that what we're doing and the strategy we have in place we will be able to maintain the momentum. No one should close the door on us yet."

Gordon Haff, senior analyst, Illuminata Inc., said that overtime platforms based on the Power5 chip, such as the IBM eServer i5 and p5, will become more attractive than even the mainframe in terms of price/performance. In the near term, however, IBM has clearly shown that the mainframe remains the "gold standard" of computing. "[IBM is making it] attractive for a lot of customers even if the base purchase price is still relatively high compared to alternatives," he said.

Still, five years ago, no one would have believed IBM could have done anything to breathe live into the mainframe –- but it did.

"I see a large effort in IT to explore other platforms to reduce cost -— no matter the platform," said Larry Britton, a tech consultant, for Tek Systems, Omaha, Neb. As a result, a lot of that business will go to Windows.

But Britton doesn't see a decline in use of the mainframe.

"There's going to be more mainframes [sold] because of price performance and consolidation," he said. "I see that jump on the T-Rex."

Then again, Britton isn't moved by reports of Windows dominance.

He juggles semantics and asks if domination is a good thing or a bad thing. If it hogs your resources, then it must dominate, he said. If there's more of it, then it's dominant.

"Let's use the right word," he said. "Redmond uses the word 'dominate' a lot. IBM doesn't have to, because it does.

Bottom line, Britton said, is that there's room for growth on both ends.

"One guy says it. Then that's the thing. But, it's just one guy's opinion. What it's about is what is in front of your face."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Kate Evans-Correia, Senior News Editor

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