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Mainframe year in review 2009

Last year, the mainframe world was all about controlling costs -- using more Linux (zLinux), stemming MIPS growth and offloading work to specialty engines.

It comes as no surprise that the top mainframe story in 2009, as in much of IT, was the economy.

Mainframers felt the pinch just like anyone else, leading to them to control growth, continue looking for alternative software platforms such as Linux on z, and test the boundaries of their licensing agreements.

With the mainframe, it always ties back to money. In January, when T3 Technologies chose to push forward on its complaint charging that IBM holds a mainframe monopoly, the argument was around whether there should be an alternative mainframe. That would mean non-IBM hardware --presumably cheaper than System z iron -- that can run z/OS. Critics say that IBM tying its mainframe hardware to z/OS is a monopoly. IBM claims that the mainframe is just another server computer, and it has a right to protect its intellectual property.

Platform Solutions Inc. once had an alternative mainframe; IBM first sued and then bought them. T3 had a licensing agreement with PSI and continued its lawsuit. A federal judge dismissed T3's claim this fall, but since then, the U.S. Justice Department has stepped in and is now investigating whether IBM holds a monopoly with its mainframe products. There are strong arguments on both sides, said mainframe expert and contributor Robert Crawford.

That brings up another sticky legal situation, thanks to a big splash made by Neon Enterprise Software. In June, Neon unveiled zPrime, which it claimed was a way for mainframers to save millions of dollars a year by offloading more work to IBM specialty processors than was previously thought possible. Mainframers could thus cut software licensing costs -- a big pain point -- by offloading work to processors like the IFL, zIIP and zAAP, which run Linux, database and Java applications. One anonymous, large customer told Neon and industry analysts that it could save $10 million a year running zPrime.

IBM didn't take too kindly to the notion. IBM warned customers off zPrime, saying that it might violate IBM licensing agreements. Neon countered that zPrime doesn't violate any IBM intellectual property. Crawford suggested IBM start listening to its customers regarding zPrime rather than threatening them.

Using big iron to cut costs
These stories reflect the reality among mainframers that they've been looking to cut costs for years, and especially this year. A September survey of about 1,500 mainframe users by BMC Software found that reducing MIPS growth was a top priority, even as 84% expected MIPS growth in the next year. MIPS growth can be directly tied to costs because of software licensing being based on them or some other variable of mainframe workload growth.

That is perhaps why IBM is pushing Linux on System z so hard. Big Blue now estimates that about half of the applications on the mainframe run on Linux, and that growth of zLinux is 100% over the last two years. It announced a Linux-only mainframe near the end of the year, part of its group of System z Solution Editions that also include packages designed for disaster recovery, data warehousing, security and a few other purposes.

But Linux and z/OS aren't the only choices for the mainframe. OpenSolaris is still an option, though most agree it will continue to be a niche market. Meanwhile, Mantissa, a little-known software vendor, is working to put Windows on System z. The product would run similarly to Linux and OpenSolaris on the mainframe, on top of the z/VM operating system. Though it's still early and still in development, it appears at first blush to be Windows running on an x86 hypervisor built on top of the z/VM hypervisor. End users, understandably, are waiting to see what happens there.

Meanwhile, third-party software vendors looked to make mainframe management easier for IT pros. CA upgraded 143 mainframe products and streamlined downloading and deployment through its Mainframe 2.0 initiative. BMC Software claimed it could help users control MIPS through SQL tuning and capacity management, among other things. DataDirect, meanwhile, offered up a free online calculator that can estimate savings users can get by offloading work to zIIP engines.

Expect 2010 to be a big year for the mainframe. IBM said it would stop selling its z9 mainframe June 30. That sets the stage for the unveiling of the z11 mainframe, which some industry watchers expect will hit the market in the third quarter of 2010. One of the potential features of the new box is expected to be a move from 65nm to 45nm processors, which will run around 5GHz, have simultaneous multithreading and result in a 20-25% performance improvement.

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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