At IBM the Mainframe Is the Main Event

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2011-01-25

At IBM the Mainframe Is the Main Event

IBM just keeps on winning with the mainframe. Year after year, decade after decade, IBM keeps delivering new mainframe functionality and its customers keep on buying it.

In fact, the mainframe led IBM's Systems and Technology Group's 21 percent increase in revenues in the fourth quarter of 2010, as mainframe sales rose nearly 70 percent. The mainframe is IBM's heavyweight champ. It keeps going the distance and winning. If IBM were in a prize fight, the mainframe would be the main event.

The Q4 results show that though the mainframe server is a small niche in the overall, highly competitive server landscape, it remains a source of great value for those IBM clients who take comfort in its high levels of security and reliability.

Known for pioneering in the mainframe space in the 1960s, IBM continues to evolve and innovate in the mainframe arena, with a road map and vision for mainframe technology that stretches to 2018 and beyond, Rod Adkins, senior vice president of IBM's Systems and Technology Group, said in an interview with eWEEK.

Adkins said the fourth-quarter 2010 results for sales of the latest System z mainframe follow the pattern for new releases of IBM mainframe technology. IBM introduced its zEnterprise system in the third quarter of 2010 (July 22).

"This demand is customer-driven," Adkins said. "We introduced a new platform in the third quarter, and we typically do see, in the front end of the cycle, increased hardware sales and upgrades. So from a historical perspective this is following our traditional mainframe cycle."

However, Adkins said he believes that the zEnterprise "being the first multi-architecture workload optimized system" also helped to attract customer attention.

The zEnterprise's systems architecture enables workloads on mainframe, Power7 and x86 systems to share resources and be managed as a single, virtualized system. It sets up the big iron as the central management point of enterprise data centers, with other systems directly feeding off the mainframe's attributes.

During an earnings call announcing IBM's fourth-quarter results, Mark Loughridge, IBM's senior vice president of finance and enterprise transformation and chief financial officer, said, "Systems and Technology had fantastic performance, with 21 percent growth. We had growth in every platform, but the most impressive growth was in our System z mainframes, which were up almost 70 percent."

Loughridge added that STG delivered $6.3 billion in revenue for the quarter. "This is the best revenue performance in over a decade," he said. "Revenue was driven by growth in all brands, with strong double-digit growth in System z, Power entry systems, System x, disk storage, retail store solutions and microelectronics."

Moreover, "System z revenue grew 69 percent year to year driven by our first full quarter of shipments of the new zEnterprise," Loughridge said. "This performance reflects the value and innovation System z delivers to our customers. MIPS [millions of instructions per second] grew 58 percent year to year, the highest growth in six years, and we added 24 new System z customers to the platform."

Adkins said STG's fourth-quarter results suggest that the strategy IBM put in place more than a year ago is paying off. That is to deliver workload optimized systems, to focus on integration and optimization, to construct systems around business value, and to have a heavy focus on service management. The push on service management is an economic statement for IBM clients, he said.

Trend Around Consolidation


The zEnterprise extends end-to-end systems management capabilities where the mainframe is part of systems consolidation, Adkins added. Indeed, consolidation is one of the major trends Adkins said IBM is seeing among its customer base.

"We're seeing a trend around consolidation where clients are installing bigger systems," he said.

Adkins also said IBM is seeing a trend around the growth of data, which calls for better data and information management, and also increasing trends around integration of systems and processes. The mainframe, he said, can play a role in addressing all of these trends.

While Adkins said the idea for the architecture in the zEnterprise-which brings the mainframe and Power systems together-goes back three to five years, IBM is already looking ahead to future generations of the mainframe.

For long-term planning, "We have a global technology outlook that we work with our colleagues in Research on," Adkins said. "And we define a product offering road map to support our growth objectives."

Adkins said IBM has 10-year outlooks that look well beyond what is deliverable in the short term, but also a product road map that looks out over the next five years. And IBM Chairman, CEO and President Sam Palmisano has established some key areas for IBM to focus on in its road map to 2015, including analytics, cloud computing, growth markets and IBM's Smarter Planet strategy, which includes delivering smarter infrastructure and smart solutions for clients in enterprises and governments throughout the world.

The mainframe can play a role in each of these scenarios and fits in the class of computing to address workload categories such as database and transaction processing, analytics and high-performance computing, business applications, and collaboration, Adkins said.

However, as each application might require different system demands and different configurations, IBM will continue to offer a mainframe, Unix-based systems and x86 industry standards-based technology, Adkins said.

As time goes on, "the mainframe will continue to play the role it plays today-it has constantly evolved to be relevant," Adkins said, noting that customers will continue to look to the mainframe as a safe, reliable security-blanket type of system that handles mission-critical workloads. And IBM will continue to make it relevant by adding accelerator technologies like it did over the years to better support Linux and Java and databases, among other technologies.

For the mainframe of the future, look for more of the same, Adkins said. He said there will be "a better infrastructure for data flight and data performance" where data is better co-located and there is enhanced security in the more tightly coupled systems.

"The mainframe will also be central in a cloud environment," Adkins said. "As the industry gets the definition right around cloud-which is basically delivering computing as a service-I think the mainframe is one of the best platforms architected for that purpose. For security and multitenancy, the mainframe has all the characteristics required."

Adkins noted the role of IBM Research, and he linked IBM's $6 million annual R&D spend as a differentiating factor for IBM systems. A dramatic illustration of that is IBM's Watson supercomputer, which has been trained to play the game Jeopardy! Watson is powered by 10 commercially available IBM Power7 systems.

Watson is emblematic of a new era of smarter computing workloads, running IBM DeepQA software developed by IBM Research on a Power7 processor-based workload-optimized system. And it demonstrates how IBM is tackling new types of business models as systems manage data in new ways.

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