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IBM's big iron sales down but mainframes not on way out, say experts

Does IBM's recent drop in mainframe sales indicate big iron modernization tools are gaining traction?

News of IBM's declining big iron sales have prompted speculation for the reason behind the drop, but mainframe experts say rumors of the mainframe’s demise are, once again, premature.

First quarter results for IBM show legacy hardware sales at $3.7 billion, a 7% overall drop since last year, with System z contributing 25% to the loss. Gathering on the horizon are modernization tools that aim to pry customers from the mainframe and put them in the cloud may be tempting for some businesses, but one expert says the strength of the mainframe will continue to prevail.

“If you are a large enterprise and need to process massive MIPS there isn't a server that comes close to the mainframe,” said Gary Westaway, data center manager at Dell Canada, adding “Perhaps sluggish sales are related to the current tough economy. Mainframes are truly big-ticket acquisitions and many may be hanging onto their mainframes a bit longer. It is also something the small enterprise likely doesn't need or have the resources to acquire while the large enterprise does.”

There might also be a much simpler explanation for the slow-down. Systems programmer Robert Crawford thinks the possible release of a new IBM mainframe system slated for August may have slowed sales. "Customers aren't likely to buy the current generation of machines if they can get more for their money in a few months," he said.

Crawford also sees the possibility that the used z196 market may be "taking the wind out of new sales."

Mainframes are truly big-ticket acquisitions and many may be hanging onto their mainframes a bit longer.

Gary Westaway

The mainframe modernization push
Meanwhile, vendors selling modernization software have the mainframe in their crosshairs. Dell, for example, recently purchased Clerity Solutions, which offers legacy application rehosting software. According to Dell, “Clerity’s capabilities will enable Dell Services to help customers reduce the cost of transitioning business-critical applications and data from legacy computing systems and onto more modern architectures, including the cloud.” Dell positions the acquisition as an opportunity for companies to save money and increase flexibility by moving applications from IBM mainframes to Linux and Windows-based x86 servers — as well as the cloud.

In another push on the cloud, startup company Heirloom Computing offers what it calls Enterprise Legacy Platform-as-a-Service (ELPaaS), which uses its Elastic COBOL integrated development environment (IDE) to execute legacy applications written in COBOL on a Java-based cloud environment. Heirloom says the fledgling platform will enable enterprises to wean themselves from a mainframe environment.

Though COBOL is the language of many legacy applications, z/OS has evolved to support Java, C/C++ and other programming languages. Because mainframes have weathered competition and kept current, some in the industry feel it's not a matter of big iron's disappearance from the data center, it's a matter of mainframers patiently outlasting and adapting to emerging technology.

"What's happening now [with the drop in sales] is a combination of the usual between-generation-switch relative slowdown and that the low-hanging fruits of the new markets are beginning to be exhausted," said Wayne Kernochan of Infostructure Associates.

Mainframe vendors can either "grow as the in-enterprise [public-cloud/xaaS provider] market grows, but not capture much of the public-cloud market or support Windows much better and capture more of the public-cloud market," said Kernochan.              

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