Morphing the mainframe

As distributed systems take on more mainframe-like qualities, the future of big iron hinges on its ability to adapt to the distributed computing revolution without being consumed by it.

The mainframe is still king, at least at one of New York's largest banks. Nearly three quarters of all transactions are processed on big iron, and 20 to 25 percent of the remaining transactions rely on the mainframe for at least some business processes. "The mainframe today is still the platform that we are able to drive to the highest level of utilization," says Edward Mulligan, managing director of the technology services division at Bank of New York.

That's slowly changing. Like many companies, the bank conducts most software development projects on Windows or Unix servers. These distributed systems are more open, offer more-agile software architectures and are less costly to run and maintain than mainframes, Mulligan says. And distributed systems are increasingly offering traditional mainframe benefits, such as availability, scalability and server utilization. Mainframe technologies, ranging from channel architectures to virtualization, have migrated down to distributed systems and have begun to mature. "Most of the server solutions available today are morphing to become more like a mainframe," Mulligan says.

But the mainframe is also becoming more like distributed systems. Designs are evolving to incorporate technologies such as Fibre Channel, InfiniBand, Unix and Java. The success of those efforts will determine whether the mainframe will survive as a distinct platform or simply be absorbed into the world of distributed computing.

Robert DiAngelo, vice president and CIO at MIB Group, says he doesn't trust distributed systems with his high-end applications for insurance fraud detection. "I'm in an environment that's easy to maintain, very secure, highly reliable," he says of his IBM z890 mid-range system. DiAngelo is redeploying his applications in a three-tier architecture that includes Java, WebSphere and DB2. But the entire architecture, plus his development and quality-assurance testing environments, are consolidated into a single logical partition on the mainframe. Everything fits into a cabinet in his data centre. "This is a lot easier to manage than 80, 90 or 200 servers that are spread out," says DiAngelo. MIB Group is a poster child for IBM's strategy of promoting the mainframe as a consolidation platform, although DiAngelo acknowledges that he's "out in front" of most organizations in taking this approach. As mainframe technologies trickle down to distributed systems, those systems are getting better at hosting mainframe-class applications. Meanwhile, IBM, Unisys and others are moving to more open, industry-standard technologies. Distributed systems based on Unix and Windows are eroding the low end of the mainframe installed base. The mainframe still firmly holds its edge in complex environments. But the battle for the mid-range -- applications of up to 1000 MIPS, where most mainframe applications fail -- has already begun.

Unless the relatively high costs of mainframe hardware and software become more competitive, and unless more-agile software architectures, such as .Net and J2EE, can be successfully deployed on mainframe systems at scale, the mainframe could eventually be eased out of corporate IT. "IBM mainframes are going to become marginalized to the high end if IBM can't significantly reduce the cost," says Dale Vecchio, an analyst at Gartner.

Adoption of industry-standard technologies is key to the mainframe's survival. IBM has based its strategy on Java, WebSphere and Unix/Linux and positioned the zSeries mainframe as a consolidation platform. IBM also released last July its System z9, which reflects an investment of more than $US1 billion and includes innovations such as an encryption processor and the ability to support up to 54 processors and 60 logical partitions. "That's an enormously impressive technology. They doubled everything except the price," says Gary Barnett, an analyst at Ovum in London. While mainframes are incorporating additional open architectures, they're also likely to continue to be technology leaders, says Chander Khanna, vice president and general manager at Unisys. "They are at the top of the waterfall. I don't foresee that changing," he says.

At the hardware level, distributed systems have incorporated industry-standard versions of technologies with mainframe roots, such as Fibre Channel, InfiniBand and IBM's Chipkill error-correction technology, which is used in memory for high-availability systems. "Every big server now has dynamic partitioning, a channel architecture -- things like InfiniBand -- and they all have 64-bit support and large memory," says John Abbott, an analyst at The 451 Group in New York. While IBM says proprietary channel architectures such as Ficon and Escon have advantages, Mulligan would rather have standardized I/O. "An imaging application we have and a storage device we'd like to leverage are not supported cleanly by IBM's Ficon architecture," he says. "You end up buying these esoteric boxes that emulate the protocols."

But for MIB Group's I/O-intensive application, channel performance is more important than using open-standards hardware. Today, InfiniBand can't drive the number of concurrent channels DiAngelo needs. "We need that back-end channel capacity, and that's something the mainframe does very well," he says.

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