The Mainframe Is a Vampire

The mainframe is back from the dead, and it’s out for blood.
Posted October 30, 2015

Rob Enderle

If you looked at the recent IBM numbers, which were pretty painful but in line with what generally happens when a company is adapting to a major industry change, you saw one bright light: their mainframe business was growing faster than the server segment in general is growing.

In fact, with the massive growth of web services, it has been hard for the server segment to get out of the low single digits. But once you adjusted for currency fluctuations, mainframes (IBM’s System Z) were up a whopping 20 percent. That’d be impressive server growth in a good year, for what has been a really soft year for servers, 20 percent growth is outstanding.

We declared the mainframe dead 30 years ago. And there is only one creature, mythological or otherwise, that comes back from the dead more powerful than it was before it “died,” and that is a vampire. Given this is Halloween season, it was unusually easy to suggest the mainframe may be a vampire—a good vampire—but a powerful one nevertheless.

BMC Mainframe Study

BMC does an annual mainframe survey, and it tied in nicely with IBM’s strong mainframe numbers this year. BMC talks to around 1,200 companies currently running mainframes who are spread throughout North America, EMEA, Latin America and Asia Pacific. About half the firms have revenues over $1B (49 percent) with the rest segmented down to firms that have less than $100M (14 percent), so they get a good spread. Industries are about 31 percent finance and insurance (where mainframes have traditionally been heavy, 21 percent technology (where migration from mainframes has been typically highest), 16 percent government, and the rest (30 percent) in a variety of other industries.

What folks seem to love about mainframes is that the current generation is relatively secure, has class leading availability, can now address mobile audiences, and has enterprise scale. Given the mainframe was optimized for I/O (input/output), you would think it would be ideal for mobile loads, which are relatively low performance but high access. In other words, a lot of folks making relatively small requests for information should fit the original mainframe design elements like a glove, and not too surprisingly, they do.

Usage is interesting in that zLinux is moving to nearly half of the mainframes (up from 22 percent to 48 percent this year). Java usage has jumped to 93 percent, and analytics on the mainframe has jumped from 67 percent to 82 percent showcasing that, increasingly, the mainframe is being transitioned from legacy applications to current apps.

Much of the focus for those that have mainframes is assuring that the costs associated with them aren’t excessive. This is difficult because of the complexity of licenses, which often bill according to peak use and are incredibly granular in terms of how the system is used (often charging for the number of processors and application engages). These costs represent 22 percent to 55 percent of the overall budget for this platform. This makes BMC particularly happy they sell tools that drive the lowest license costs for a given workload.

This survey showcased that IT remains focuses on data privacy, data availability (including recovery after a failure) and application modernization. This last was partially why mainframes were declared dead 30 years ago, and it represents one of the areas that has received the greatest focus over the last three decades.

Supporting IBM’s growth numbers, a whopping 83 percent of customers are keeping or growing their mainframe footprint, and 90 percent see no end to their use of the mainframe for at least some things. The 10 percent that are thinking the mainframe is going away has been pretty consistent in this survey over the years. But the 20 percent growth number that suggests that the majority of that 10 percent are pretty consistently wrong.

Back From the Dead

Perhaps vampire was an unfortunate word to describe the mainframe, but given that it is Halloween, I’ll ask forgiveness. What IBM’s numbers and BMC’s survey clearly showcase is that the mainframe, or at least the concept of a mainframe, not only isn’t dead, it is growing at a healthy rate.

By the way, on this premature death thing, you may have noticed from Apple’s financials that the iPad, the thing that was “killing” the PC, was dropping 20 percent year-over-year, while Dell is reporting strong PC growth. I’m thinking that, overall, we should take these technology death statements a bit more skeptically in the future. Just saying.

In any case the mainframe, which founded IBM’s dominance into the 1980s is once again one of their most successful products. BMC, which I studied when I worked at IBM in the 1980s and was then one of the platform's most successful developers, is once again on the rise.

Maybe instead of using a Halloween theme for this column, I should have instead used a "Back to the Future" theme? Regardless it does look like, vampire or not, the mainframe may be immortal.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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