Mainframe thinking draws life from Internet

The mainframe, whose demise has been regularly exaggerated during the past two decades, has gotten a shot of adrenaline from the reliability and uptime requirements of the e-business phenomenon. Nothing runs as well or as expensively as a mainframe, and no other system environment can boast of 40 years spent developing disciplined management practices.

But it's not so much a resurgence in buying and using mainframes that's at issue today. Cutter Consortium says only a quarter of the 112 companies it surveyed have at least 50 percent of their critical applications running on mainframes, and that percentage of applications continues to decline.

Rather, there's a resurgence in mainframe-style thinking, manifested by the drive to consolidate legions of servers that have sprung up throughout companies in recent years. That is, IT and the entire organization today can visualize the benefits of a more centralized data center approach to server management, apart from the decentralized IT modus operandi that exists in many places.

Server consolidation isn't new thinking, and in some ways, it's déjà vu all over again (with apologies to Yogi Berra). The difference today is that a series of factors are conspiring to make server consolidation a more prudent course of action now than ever before.

For starters, users in the e-business environment demand service levels that are very difficult to attain with far-flung networks of independently managed servers. Whereas a few years ago it was annoying, at worst, for an e-mail server to go down, today, an e-mail system may be tied into customer service and response systems, making e-mail a business-critical application.

Many project-specific departmental servers have limited potential to scale, usually resulting in the proliferation of more servers to meet increasing usage demands. This has made for a very complex and messy systems administration chore, one that's also extremely labor-intensive.

Perhaps most critical, the wild growth in project and application-specific servers has fostered an IT infrastructure that's linked to problem resolution and not to shifting business conditions. In other words, the serverfest of the past 10 years is no longer in step with e-business requirements of flexible, scalable, efficient systems development.

Server consolidation doesn't necessarily mean reintroducing the mainframe or some other big box. It can mean consolidating common application processors and the way they're managed. It can mean simply placing all servers in one area for more efficient management. Or it can mean replacing smaller servers with a bigger one.

Whatever the approach, a properly hatched server consolidation can yield more than just garden-variety benefits. The enterprise can make better use of its most precious resource, namely skilled IT labor, by focusing on fewer servers to deploy and maintain. Consolidation can mean far simpler administration and management, usually with a smaller number of more powerful tools. These factors should translate into lower total cost of ownership. The greatest benefits are improved service levels in terms of reliability, uniform backup and restoration and better response times, all of which are e-business hallmarks.

Of course, it's not all roses. There are many vendors offering comprehensive consolidation services, and sorting through them is a nightmare. Cost/benefit analysis is proving difficult, too, because it's difficult to get a handle on what the real IT costs are. Measuring the costs of intangibles such as downtime is particularly complex. Last fall, Microsoft added to this vendor stew with its introduction of Datacenter Server, the highest-level Windows operating system sold only through certified resellers. With very few certified applications available, Datacenter hasn't made major inroads into the enterprise yet. But it has many IT managers circling in a holding pattern on consolidation as they wait to see what kind of broader industry support it engenders. Unisys is already building a significant consolidation services business involving Datacenter.

So while the mainframe may continue its long, slow journey into the night, long live mainframe thinking. But be aware that consolidation is a long process, so it makes sense to begin thinking about and planning for it to happen.

Bill Laberis is a consultant in Holliston, Mass., and former editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.

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