IBM Corp. closed the gap in market share by stealing customers from Sun. Last year IBM posted a 6.5% gain in market share, mostly at the expense of Sun, which saw its market share contract 6.3% and revenues plunge 53%, according to IDC research.
Of the 235 respondents to Datamation's survey, 63 or 27% favored the IBM z900 over the runner-up Sun Fire 15K, with 46 votes. Granted, the majority of respondents overall still favored Sun, with the third choice going to Sun's Sun Netra X1 with 44 votes, but expect that number to shrink as IT managers start consolidating multiple Sun boxes onto the mainframe.
Senior IT executives are looking to solve problems beyond simply maintaining legacy applications, says Giga Information Group analyst David Mastrobattista. Many believe that the IBM zSeries 900 can reduce their total cost-of-ownership through server farm consolidation even as it ushers in the next wave of Linux-based enterprise computing.
"IBM was the big winner because they already had the technology in place and were able to deliver in quantity," he says. Indeed, IBM has sold over 1,000 of its zSeries 900 --each worth well over $1 million-- since the product's rollout last year. The company has seen five consecutive quarters of double-digit growth in mainframe sales.
Even more surprising than the number of MIPS (millions of instructions per second) shipped, says Mastrobattista, is the fact that 60-65 percent of them were for non-traditional workloads such as Linux-based server farm consolidation and large-scale e-mail and messaging deployments.
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Consolidation allows companies to trade uncertainty about growth into a known expenditure parceled out over time. That's especially attractive in a tough economy. "For the next five years, we can add up to 200 servers on the one engine without having to buy any new equipment," says Joe Poole, a z900 customer and manager of technical support for Boscov's, a department store chain that operates 35 stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Maryland. "We've leveled our playing surface by investing in a five-year piece of equipment with a known expenditure."
With revenue growth fairly steady -- Boscov's opens two to three new stores every year -- Poole and his boss CIO Harry Roberts wanted to make better use of their building and reduce overhead costs. There was also the economy to consider: While the chain had posted strong results in 2001 and avoided layoffs, the company was under a hiring freeze. According to Roberts, Boscov's had been adding about one server a month to its server farm, and one new server administrator for every 10 servers.
The team started by transferring print and file server workloads onto the Linux virtual server, and plan to move e-commerce and database applications to the z900 next year. So far, the company has consolidated over half of its 70 servers onto the mainframe and hopes to bring its server volume down to 20 by year's end.
"When we first moved into this building, we had a water-cool processor and 25 boxes of discs sitting on the floor," Poole says. "Now the computer center sits in about one quarter of the floor space."
He used the extra space to build a nifty test lab and shop, much to the delight of his tech staff. Poole reckons that consolidating also cut his electricity usage in half. Typical server configuration requires some 10,000 square feet of floor space compared with only 400 square feet for a single z900, according to IBM. At an average of 100 Watts per square foot, the savings can be significant.
"The z900 does literally just about everything that we have to get done -- and does it very well," says Poole. "Under the one processor we have OS390 and we are also running z/VM with Linux on top of it, so we have all sorts off servers on the same footprint."
Still, not all users are as gung-ho about the zSeries as Poole. Phil Andrews, Ph.D., director of data and knowledge systems at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, uses both IBM and Sun products, but chose the Sun Fire 15K as an excellent data manager to integrate with Sun's fibre-channel disks. "We believe that storage area networks are going to be huge and we wanted something very fast that could utilize hundreds of terabytes of fibre-channel disks," he says. Other Fortune 1000 CIOs complained that they would have to be using 1,000 MIPS to really take advantage of the zSeries' pricing policies and economies of scale. In response to such complaints -and to further boost market share while it's on a roll- IBM announced plans at the end of January to deliver a new Linux-only mainframe that would make it cost-effective to consolidate anywhere from 20 to hundreds of Sun and Intel servers. The new mainframe requires no traditional mainframe operating system experience.
"We want to carry our momentum forward and really make the mainframe mainstream," says Pete McCaffrey, director of zSeries marketing. Still, Mastrobattista believes that, in terms of total-cost-of-ownership, the zSeries will continue to find its "sweet spot" among Fortune 500 users.
Will the mainframe revival last? That depends on a number of factors, says Mastrobattista, but the outlook is good. In the short-term, continued economic pressure is forcing companies to centralize and make use of existing infrastructure- and that spells good news for the mainframe.
In addition, Linux is growing up: new Linux distributions from key players such as Red Hat and Turbolinux have put Linux into overdrive, even as it gains maturity within a mainframe environment thanks to enterprise-class Linux from developers like BEA, Computer Associates and SAP.
With innovations in z/VM software licensing and partitioning that encourages workload-based pricing, the mainframe could attract an even broader base of users. Nothing is ever certain in the world of technology though. Whether IBM will accomplish its stated goal of "putting Sun and Intel servers out to pasture" remains to be seen.
Eva Marer is a freelance business and technology reporter based in New York. She covers investments, personal finance and corporate technology issues for a variety of trade and consumer magazines. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.