Mainframes Back in a Big Way

What’s old is new again in server architectures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean what was new will suddenly become old.

It should be no surprise to industry watchers that the mainframe has made a strong comeback in the past few years. New numbers from BMC Software confirm it: 84 percent of the IT industry expects to see steady expansion of mainframe usage over the next year, and a solid majority (60 percent) expects part of that increase in the form of new kinds of workloads, not just increased volumes of current loads. Among the top drivers at work here are the desire for massive levels of consolidation and the need for robust platforms to carry virtualized and cloud environments.

This is certainly good news for IBM, which took its fair share of lumps during the era of commodity servers when distributed resources and controlled scalability were all the rage. Third quarter results for the company’s Systems and Technology Group showed a 30 percent increase in System x revenues and a 15 percent jump for System z. Delivery of total MIPS capability for the System z jumped a staggering 54 percent.

As can be expected, this kind of growth fuels an entire ancillary market of support systems. Oracle, for one, is looking to leverage the mainframe storage business it acquired from Sun Microsystems with the new StorageTek Virtual Library Extension. Hoping to hit IBM as close to its mainframe business as possible, Oracle touts the system as offering twice the scalability and five times the availability as Big Blue’s TS storage line. The system also breaks new ground as the only one to integrate Fibre Channel, SAS and tape into a three-tier solution.

Not every mainframe vendor is enjoying heady days, however. Unisys reported a sales slide of 31.4 percent in the latest quarter, contributing to a worrisome 53.7 drop in net income. To be fair, however, the drop comes after three previous quarters of solid growth, and the most recent quarter is compared against a stellar period in 2009. Also, the company recently launched a new version of the ClearPath system, which is expected to drive sales upward in the new year.

So does all this activity reflect the usual cyclical nature of the tech industry? Are commodity servers, once the hottest ticket around, now headed for the scrap heap? Hardly. Rather than a transition from one platform to another, the re-emergence of the mainframe represents an expansion of data center capabilities from plain vanilla data delivery to advanced virtual and cloud services and applications.

In the immediate future, data centers will have to serve a variety of masters using a variety of flexible systems alongside large number-crunching beasts. Organizations that can integrate these two environments smoothly will find themselves well-positioned to handle whatever users can throw at them.

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