It’s true that each year IBM sells only a few thousand zSeries or System z9 mainframe servers to a customer base that is shrinking. Compare this to the many millions of systems sold that contain Intel, AMD and POWER chips, and you may be tempted to conclude that the server with the highest sales volume wins in the end. Don’t believe that for a minute. Dell won’t outdo big iron for the same reason small aircraft won’t displace jumbo jets. When evaluating mainframes or jumbo jets, the winner is determined by service volume, not sales volume. So, in value propositions such as this, capacity trumps commodity. Thus, companies that have mainframes use them to provide critical core services to their users. Those “users” can be you or me, but in our wired world those users are also millions of distributed systems, making the relationship between mainframe systems and distributed systems more complementary than competitive.
To understand the dynamics of IT markets, it’s important to do a value comparison as well as a correct volume comparison. It’s the millions of people served daily by mainframes that tell the real story of their value. Since the mainframe’s customer base consists of the world’s largest companies, for decades the mainframe has been the backbone of the world economy. In most developed countries (and even in Texas!), mainframes touch those engaged in commerce several times daily and none are the wiser. Can you tell me the last time you were served by a mainframe? It was likely the last time you visited an ATM, charged some merchandise, read your electric bill, received your payroll check, paid your taxes (sorry), and/or received a service from any large institution. If you are one of the 30,000 students, faculty or staff on campus at Boston University (BU), when was the last time you accessed the Web? While Sun servers support the presentation layer for a wide range of applications, the mainframe provides the muscle to process close to a million transactions per day from these vital business systems. Having concluded the Web is a wildcard (and students are wilder), BU’s central IT staff has crafted a highly automated mainframe environment that services the dynamic business needs of their ever-growing client base across the globe. Mainframe reliability and responsiveness are a must for BU to remain competitive because the Web never sleeps!
Still, you’ll find well-educated people who are also terribly misinformed about IT. I was once invited to speak at a two-day business conference. The keynote speaker was a high-dollar, prominent author who had also made some national TV appearances to add to his notoriety. When he presented his views on the state of technology, he revealed he was just another pundit from the reading edge. He claimed high-powered RISC chips were taking over the world, comparing them to 1977 vintage mainframes that not only cost a fortune, but delivered only 2 MIPS and required water cooling. Actually, the tone he used was one of indignation that anyone would dare use water to cool a computer. He wrapped it all up with his prescription for success, stating, “Client/server is where you want to be!” The next morning, I opened my talk by suggesting that futurists are helpful to the extent they get us thinking outside the box, but I reminded my audience that prescription without proper diagnosis is malpractice. I cautioned that it’s unwise to embrace generalizations made by someone who hasn’t taken the time to learn the first thing about what you’re trying to do. I also talked about the gap between where the rubber meets the sky and where it meets the road. The big irony was after the keynote speaker declared the mainframe was merely road kill in the wake of the client/server bandwagon, he proceeded to provide examples of different technology-enhanced services that were all innovations dependent on mainframes; he simply didn’t know any better.
Would you help me determine how many people are served by mainframes? .... and in what ways? I would be much obliged if you would answer a few short questions at www/actscorp.com/survey. Please forward this link to others who may be willing to help. With adequate response, the information gathered will be used in a future column.
By the way, since 2001 I’ve operated my software business using five Linux virtual servers, all hosted on a mainframe at Infocrossing. So, when you complete the survey and/or visit our Website, you are being served by a mainframe!
Grace and peace!