Itanium-Armed Start-up To Menace IBM's Precious Mainframe Monopoly

There's been no one to challenge IBM's unprecedented mainframe monopoly since Big Blue ran off the last of the PCMs years ago when it got light years ahead of them on the silicon front, forcing them to close up shop and slink away.

At the same time IBM saved mainframes from being entombed in the La Brea tar pits along with other fossils, an exercise that has proven to be worth the effort. In its latest quarter, mainframes were credited with contributing 15% of IBM's profits, the tip of a huge multibillion-dollar business that has been IBM's to do with what it will.

Until now.

Enter Platform Solutions Inc (PSI), a company that was started in 1999 by Amdahl's old core engineers using an estimated half-a-billion-dollars worth of Amdahl IP and bent on making an industry-standard Itanium 2 system capable of running MVS, z/OS, S/390, Unix, Windows and Linux simultaneously.

PSI is playing for the half of the US$5 billion-a-year mainframe hardware business that IBM barely cares about, all those mid-sized and middling large companies that aren't the Fortune 100.

IBM can't be bothered dirtying its own hands on anything less than a Fortune 100, according to PSI president and CEO Michael Maulick, himself an IBM veteran with over 20 years of service (ADSM is his). IBM passes their business on to stand-ins.

Such is IBM's focus on the rarified high high-end and such is its fascination with 450-MIPS building blocks that it has stranded less prestigious accounts without an affordable migration path past the G4 and G5, Maulick says.

Things being what they are, he says, second-tier companies are being forced to pay US$8,000-US$10,000 per MIPS where their better-off betters are paying only US$2,000.

Knowing that PSI is coming, IBM threw these second-tier accounts a bone in July when it introduced the dumbed-down z990 it dubbed the z890. It pulled a few chips out of the 990, lowered its clock speed, crippled its cache, reused its packaging and, knowing that PSI would start at 26 MIPS, said the 890 would do that.

Maulick claims it's not a solution and, at roughly the same price as the 990, certainly not a reasonable one.

PSI aims to address this disenfranchised market, believing that it's also elastic. It figures, for instance, that there are high-end Sun users that would love to go back to the safety and security of the MVS RAS and can't get there from where they are.

At this point, PSI is only thinking about carving off a piece of the mainframe iron market, not the US$24 billion service and software business connected with it.

PSI is playing for big stakes - and ultimately a big IPO - remember that 60%-70% of the world's mission-critical data is still on the mainframe - and it has a few little friends helping it take on the IBM monopoly.

It just got an undisclosed amount of money in second-round financing - undisclosed because it doesn't want IBM to know what its resources are and try to drain them, but it must be a tidy pile because it's supposed to take PSI past profitability in, oh, 2006.

The money came from Goldman Sachs, which led Blueprint Ventures, InterWest Partners and InvestCorp, all of which must be delirious at the thought that PSI will have no competition.

As Maulick points out, it's not exactly a field where VCs are funding a hundred start-ups. The barrier to entry, he figures, is roughly US$500 million, the value he puts on the tools, diagnostics and testing widgetry PSI got from Amdahl.

Before deciding to take the job with PSI, Maulick was instrumental in raising PSI's US$10.2 million A round last September. Goldman wasn't part of that financing but Fujitsu, which owned Amdahl, and Intel were.

Until last year, PSI was kept alive by US$500,000 in angel droppings, Maulick said.

PSI's charter was originally Fujitsu's Plan B for how to salvage Amdahl and the notion of using Itanium as Fujitsu's back door in the Alamo dates back to 1995 when the Itanium was still a gleam in Intel's eye. When Itanium was late, Fujitsu abandoned the field and would have deep six'd its IP if it hadn't been persuaded to spin it off. PSI subsequently looked at IBM's Power chip, but decided the "underrated" Itanium was better.

The guy who first saw PSI's commercial implications, according to Maulick, was George Hoyem, the long-time VC, now Blueprint Ventures' managing partner, who once upon a time was general manager of HP's Internet Commerce Division after he co-founded Visix Software. Hoyem put together PSI's first round.

Naturally, the mere mention of HP brings to mind its IBM-besting ambitions and the idea of its, oh, Itanium-based Superdome boxes being used as mainframe-aping systems against its hereditary rival. Maulick won't confirm the possibility, but PSI is developing its so-called Universal Server on HP hardware as well as Intel white boxes.

PSI says the second-round money will be used to expand its development efforts and to fund product introduction. The outfit was at the IBM Share user meeting in New York this week showing off its stuff to the elect in a suite under NDA.

Universal Server is currently in alpha. PSI intends to beta the system in Q4 and go GA in Q1.

PSI has wrapped core microcode and patented virtualization mojo into the Universal Server's architecture and Goldman is evidently heady with delight at the prospect of running z/OS on an open systems server. It speaks of the widgetry as "reinvigorating the PCM market in a 64-bit world."

Maulick describes it as "reincarnating Amdahl" without Amdahl. Amdahl used to have 24% of the mainframe market. If PSI gets just 10%, Maulick will count it highly successful.

PSI, which will sell multi-processor servers that range into the thousands of MIPS, thinks it's got a world-class alternative to IBM's z/Series and p/Series. It believes it can argue against the wisdom of investing in a single-purpose proprietary platform that, it says, limits the exploitation of open technologies and eats up IT resources trying to solve management issues.

In PSI's architecture, Windows, Linux and Unix will run natively on Itanium, and z/OS and OS/390 will run on top of what the company calls its PCMWare. All the operating systems will be controlled from a single management console.

Ironically, if IBM Software weren't so captive to IBM's hardware interests, IBM Software chief Steve Mills would probably be beating a path to PSI's door.

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