Still in the frame

30 Oct 2003

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Mainframe computers would be regarded by many as dinosaurs, miraculously still extant in some few out-of-the-way recesses of government departments and big banks. That is probably because most PC users have barely heard of mainframes. Any kind of introduction to computing tends to start with them and then skip rapidly to our modern era of personal computers (about 1984 onwards) and the internet — or rather its junior manifestation the world wide web. But that view is wrong, because ‘Big Iron’ as mainframes were affectionately known to their acolytes (yes, white coats, air-conditioned computer rooms and all that) are still underpinning the electronic foundations of a great many critical IT functions.

In more recent years the mainframe has been having a renaissance as a very powerful server option driven by e-business. IBM, doyen of the mainframe manufacturers for more than 40 years, has persevered as others got out of that business. Its reward for such stability is that it has now found a willing market for its Z Series, launched in 2000 with the Z900 and joined earlier this year by the Z800. These are described by IBM as ‘entry-level machines’ — a term that will amuse old mainframe hands — and are in fact manufactured for the Europe Middle East and Asia market at the IBM technology campus in Mulhuddart, Co Dublin. On the other hand, someone in IBM has a sense of irony because the development project for the next model in the Z Series is called ‘T Rex’.

“The Z Series was designed from the ground up to be an e-business server,” says IBM’s Rich Lechner, vice-president of its e-Server Group. “It is having many successful deployments in enterprise customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning and with applications from such big names as SAP, PeopleSoft and Siebel. It also retains the mainframe’s traditional strengths in high-volume data and transaction processing. The Z Series is winning market share from big Unix boxes and the basic reason is reduced total cost of ownership. The work of literally hundreds of servers can be consolidated and networking costs have been reduced by up to 70pc in some cases.”

Linux is making strong inroads as the operating system (OS) of choice for the new breed of mainframes — or rather for the applications that it can run. A Z Series machine can run great numbers of Linux ‘virtual machines’ (as an experiment, IBM’s labs got up to 77,000 virtual Linux computers) each of which is conned into believing that it owns all of the processor, Ram and disk resources available.

Above them all the mainframe system is managing the whole show, time slicing all of the processing and resources. Conceptually, it is actually just like the newly fashionable ‘grid computing’ approach except that it all happens in a single box. Unlike so-called supercomputers, which are optimised for pure computational speed, mainframes focus on relatively simple computational tasks involving massive amounts of external data, huge input/output capability and near-total reliability. Because Linux has established itself as the OS of choice for many internet tasks, notably web hosting, e-business generally has been a major driver of sales.

But in many ways the most conspicuous virtue of mainframe technology — just plain awesome to those of us in the PC and Windows world — is its sheer robustness. Because so many elements of the internal system are duplicated and otherwise built for fail over and hot swapping of components there is simply no down time in normal running except for planned maintenance. Internal self-diagnostics can actually fix problems automatically.

There is actually a recorded US case of a mainframe that was moved from one site to another by disassembling/reassembling it piece by piece with the machine still running all the time. The mean time between failure (MTBF) figures for traditional systems are measured in decades while IBM claims an estimated 60 years MTBF for its Z800. They are also highly scalable, even shipping with redundant processors or ‘engines’ that can be switched in (and paid for) at a later date if required. All of this has an obvious appeal for mission-critical e-business applications and also for the newer storage architectures such as storage area networks for our ever-multiplying data. The highly regarded analyst Meta Group says that data growth rates of 700pc annually or more in the enterprise are now quite common.

So what is the mainframe scene in Ireland today? Very traditional and very important is the answer. There are just 24 installations all told, 20 of them IBM and four older Amdahl systems, now with ICL in the Fujitsu fold. There are only three of the new breed in service so far. The Department of Agriculture went to a Z800 with a whopping eight gigabytes of central memory (Ram equivalent) earlier this year for its animal tracking system and Irish Life added a Z800 to its IT resources in 2002. Data storage manufacturer EMC invested in one that same year for its Cork plant but that is believed to be for systems testing only.

On the other hand, many of our most familiar institutions and their services continue to rely on the ‘Big Iron’, such as bills from the ESB and Eircom, reservations at Aer Lingus, ATM networks in AIB and Bank of Ireland and other financial applications in First Active and the Central Bank. The Department of Agriculture has a second mainframe, inherited from the former Government Central Data Processing Service and running some legacy applications for other departments as well as its own. Other long-time users, to a less significant degree today, include CRH, Bord Bainne, Irish Life and AXA. The classic pattern is that a mainframe is mainly deployed serving for online transaction processing during the day and then at night runs major batch processing tasks, such as compiling billing information or consolidating records for other purposes such as central recording and backup, data mining or other analysis.

“Our mainframe business in Ireland is a mix of upgrades and support for the traditional models and, we believe, some bright prospects for the newer generation in e-business,” says Michael Coyle, IBM sales manager for mainframes and associated systems. “In the US last year about 70pc of all revenue from mainframes was for the new workloads such as web servers and enterprise resource planning and we believe that trend will emerge here in the very near future.”

By Leslie Faughnan

IBM mainframe circa 1964. Batteries not included