Focus on Unix as IBM Rivals Quit Mainframe Market

The impending exit of both of IBM's plug-compatible mainframe rivals from the mainframe market focuses more attention on the real battle for the high-end server market:the one between IBM and Unix server vendors, analysts and users said.

This month, Amdahl Corp. said it plans to quit the mainframe business because the cost of staying competitive with IBM's recently announced 64-bit systems wasn't worth the projected returns.

Amdahl's announcement came seven months after Hitachi Data Systems Corp. announced that it would stop selling mainframes to new customers and would, like Amdahl, focus on Unix systems going forward.

Their planned departures allow IBM to avoid hardware price reductions, especially in the higher end of the mainframe market that Unix servers don't scale up to yet, analysts said.

But growing competition from a new generation of powerful Unix servers from vendors such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. could temper IBM's moves in the lower end of the mainframe market, analysts added.

"I think that for the last couple of years, IBM's competition to the 390 [mainframe] was not coming from plug-compatible vendors but primarily from Sun and [other Unix vendors]," said Dan Kaberon, Parallel Sysplex manager at Hewitt Associates PLC inLincolnshire, Ill.

That's because technologies such as partitioning, sophisticated I/O and workload management capabilities, as well as better processor and memory support, are pushing high-end Unix servers ever closer to mainframelike performance said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., a consultancy in Nashua, N.H.

"In terms of raw memory or storage or processor [support], Unix servers are, in fact, better than mainframes,"Eunice said.

"The strong point for the mainframe is in handling integrated workloads where you need not only a lot of computing power but also transaction handling and I/O at very sustained rates," he added.

"Unix is in a very good position to expand from its midrange franchise," agreed Jean Bozman, an analyst at International Data San Mateo, Calif. "Any workload can run on either a Unix server or a mainframe. ... The difference really is the higher level of reliability and security available on mainframes."

And although Unix server hardware prices have been creeping ever closer to those of mainframe hardware, it still costs a lot more to run software on mainframes, analysts said.

Areas where mainframes still clearly hold the edge over Unix servers are in their ability to handle multiple workloads, the way their hardware and software are tuned to take maximum advantage of each other and their superior middleware as well as the overall maturity of the platform in enterprise environments, Eunice said.

Mainframe Growth Slowing

The growing sophistication of Unix servers comes at a time when mainframe server growth seems to be slowing. Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. estimates that the net growth of installed mainframe capacity will be down to around 19 percent this year, compared with 33 percent last year.

"Up until about two years ago, the point where it become more cost-effective to run [an application workload] on a mainframe was about 500 MIPS. ... Today it is close to 1,000 MIPS," said Carl Greiner, a Meta analyst.

As a result, "you have to be pretty big shop to buy a mainframe," said Greiner. "You are not going to find many new organizations and dot-coms looking at mainframes as an alternative."

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