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Big Blue Rolls Out Brand New Big Iron

By Peter Suciu TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Aug 28, 2012 11:16 AM PT

While consumers await the release of Windows 8 and the expected announcement of Apple's iPhone 5, former desktop leader IBM announced on Tuesday the release of a new line of mainframe computers. The new ZEnterprise EC12 was designed to handle the latest computing chores, including data center consolidation and cloud computing.

Big Blue Rolls Out Brand New Big Iron

Mainframes actually remain the workhorse in many industries, and despite predictions of the imminent death of the machines, the technology is still quite viable and in some cases necessary.

"That image of the mainframe being passe is very common," Joanna Brewer, IBM spokesperson, told TechNewsWorld. "We've completely renovated the systems. It has advantages as a platform for cloud computing and operational analytics. This has given it a new lease on life."

And while consumers may do their computing on laptops and increasingly tablets, mainframes often offer a higher level of security and reliability.

"The mainframe remains the platform of choice for enterprise-critical computing," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld. "Anytime you are using a credit card, that transaction is probably completed on the backend on a mainframe."

Different Needs

The fact that this older computing technology remains in use may be somewhat surprising, especially given the computing power of a smartphone or tablet today. But then again, today's mainframes are truly supercomputers. And understanding what exactly a mainframe is remains the key to understanding why it is still so viable today.

"Even industry experts can get confused in today's computer terminology by giving names such as mainframes, supercomputer, grid, cloud and virtual computing," Chris Lucena, chief technology officer at Phyaura, told TechNewsWorld. "Mainframes are pictured as these monstrous computing systems that take up a whole room and compute big data such as census information, and that's exactly what they are."

But mainframes continue to offer computing power that even today's highest performance desktop just can't handle.

"If you were to compare a mainframe to a traditional enterprise server, I would reference the recent Olympics," added Lucena. "Think of the traditional enterprise server as Usain Bolt being able to do a 100 meter dash in 9.63 seconds. Then you have your mainframe who is Stephen Kiprotich, doing a 26-mile marathon in two hours and eight minutes. The marathon runner obviously takes longer but covers more ground; whereas the 100m dash runner covers less ground but in much lesser time."

Mainframes also could see much more of a comeback simply because of the big technology catchphrase of this year, namely "big data."

"Mainframes are meant for big-data computations where reliability, security, and availability are important," said Lucena. "I don't see them going away any time soon because major industries such as healthcare are starting to need these types of computing power to process big data analytics now that healthcare data is now available digitally."

Main and Emerging Markets

For those reasons, the 47-year-old IBM platform remains one that likely won't be replaced anytime soon. And while the sales of mainframes only account for 4 percent of IBM's revenue, the mainframe is actually seeing growth, thanks in part to new markets that are looking to its reliability.

"We're seeing growth in emerging markets, with customers in Africa and customers in Russia," Brewer told TechNewsWorld. "The reason for that is that those emerging markets wants the level of security that the mainframe offers. The total cost of ownership is also very attractive."

The other emerging market isn't someone on the globe, but rather the clouds.

"This isn't your grandfather's mainframe; it has been massively updated an enhanced," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. "The mainframe's advantage is massive IO and the ability to handle equally massive utility level loads. This is the kind of thing you need for heavy cloud and hosted applications, and System Z can run virtualized Linux and Windows sessions, so it can run contemporary applications as well making it good for consolidation."

Mainframe Comeback

The irony is that had the mainframe truly been phased out, it probably would have made a comeback anyway -- simply because it is what needed to handle this time of computing.

"It is kind of funny how the pendulum swings," added Enderle. "The mainframe almost died out when the market moved to massive distributed environments, but cost containment and security, particularly physical security, are forcing consolidation again, which likely explains why System Z, IBM's mainframe, has become uniquely successful again."

The final equation in this is whether something could replace the mainframe. But that remains unlikely in the near future.

"The mainframe won't be unplugged anytime in my lifetime," added King. "I expect it survive for another generation or two at the least."

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