Going Gold – IBM’s Mainframe Turns 50

Longevity doesn’t get much respect in the tech industry, partly due to new technologies regularly entering and dominating industries and commercial markets. However, cultural factors play a part, too.

Much of IT’s vibrancy results from the startup mindset and youthful employees who willingly embrace crushing 80-hour work weeks for a chance to become millionaires — or billionaires, if Mark Zuckerberg takes a fancy to you.

That’s the IT equivalent of winning the lottery, but there’s a form of success that’s far rarer: creating, nurturing and evolving a technology that becomes elemental to the fabric of IT for years or decades. Most are components — CPU architectures, hard disk drives, memory and so on. Fewer are platforms, and the most exceptionally long-lived, IBM’s signature mainframe (now System z) platform, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Mainframe Matters

The arrival of the System (S)/360 mainframes in April 1964 signaled a radical shift in IBM’s — and competitors’ — development practices and strategies, IBM executives noted at the company’s Mainframe50 celebration in New York City.

While IBM began selling custom commercial and scientific computers starting in 1952, clients typically were responsible for all programming tasks, including writing operating systems. Over time, the rapid growth of proprietary code made supporting and upgrading mini, midrange and mainframe systems increasingly difficult and unwieldy.

Then-IBM Chairman Thomas Watson, Jr., fundamentally changed that approach with the S/360 (so-named because it was a 360-degree or “all around” computer), a series of compatible mainframe systems that could be used for virtually any purpose, including commercial and scientific computing tasks. The S/360 was the first widely used computer to support commercial operating systems, and it also offered a larger, 24-bit address space than older systems.

Focusing on the Enterprise

All that innovation came at a significant cost. Though Watson originally expected the S/360 would cost about $600 million to develop, the final cost of the project was more than US$4 billion. Since then, IBM has invested upwards of $55 billion on evolutionary mainframe development.

I mean “evolutionary” quite literally here. Despite significant threats (both real and in the fervid dreams of IBM competitors) System z mainframes continue to retain their central place in enterprise data centers because they

  • continually, reliably meet the core business and technical needs/requirements of enterprises and their customers; and
  • successfully address and adapt to constantly changing business practices and technology trends.

These points were clear at the Mainframe50 event, where testimonials from notable IBM customers, including executives from Citibank and Visa, and a video presentation from Walmart, extolled the benefits of System z. That dynamic also has resulted in exceptional customer loyalty and continuing sales for IBM.

In fact, it was not long ago that a significant uptick in System z performance and capabilities led Visa to replace all of the IBM mainframes in all of its global data centers with new System z solutions (qualifying as the most literal “forklift” upgrade in memory).

IBM’s broader mainframe sales also continue to prosper. The number of MIPS (millions of instructions per second — the key mainframe sizing/performance metric) sold doubled during the past calendar year across traditional and emerging new markets, particularly among banking and financial organizations in China and India.

The Road to Mainframe Cloud

It wouldn’t be a major IBM event without the introduction of new and improved offerings, and the Mainframe50 celebration was no exception. They included a System z Solution for Mobile Computing designed to help businesses rapidly integrate and deliver mobile and cloud services such as support for mobile financial and business transactions, and analytics processes.

Though the longevity of IBM’s signature enterprise computing platform is well-deserved, some of these elements smacked of dj vu. The company has long positioned System z as a cloud computing platform based on the mainframe’s decades-long history of supporting core cloud processes and functions. Plus, the mainframe has long been a robust platform for enterprise-class business intelligence and analytics processes.

So while it’s understandable that some might consider IBM’s Mainframe50 announcements minor variations on already well-explored themes, related developments cast the event in a somewhat different light.

For example, during the half decade that cloud computing has become an increasingly irresistible IT force, it also has become increasingly clear that there are some applications and data that enterprises likely will never entrust to public clouds and service providers.

As a result, numerous vendors and proponents of scale-out cloud solutions have ramped up offerings and rhetoric around private cloud infrastructures that would reside behind corporate firewalls, though they also could leverage dedicated IT resources hosted by trusted managed service providers (MSPs).

In those situations, the value of migrating enterprise applications and workloads to x86 solutions becomes somewhat murky. While many new x86 systems are enterprise-class in most every sense, many would argue that the cost and complexity of system migration significantly erodes the value organizations hope to capture.

That is certainly IBM’s point of view and the company’s new and improved System z solutions are designed to significantly extend the value of customers’ existing mainframe investments and skills. Plus, by deploying its new mainframe solutions in its SoftLayer data centers, IBM also is aiming to expand its role in managed cloud services.

Final Analysis

None of these points are engraved in stone, and despite IBM’s notable new and improved solutions, many of the central challenges to mainframe computing, like developing sales opportunities outside of traditional core markets, remain.

However, by carefully evaluating and addressing the needs of enterprise customers and broader market trends, IBM is continuing to effectively reimagine and renew the mainframe for the next generation of enterprise computing.

Considering how dominant youth culture is in the IT industry, the notion that any business technology could last for a hundred years seems wildly remote. Given the clear enthusiasm at the Mainframe50 celebration and the advances evident in IBM’s new System z solutions, anything seems possible.

Charles King

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

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