50 years later, mainframe is more relevant than ever: IBM

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By Melvin Calimag At the time it was unveiled in the same venue where it was made, tech titan IBM had deemed it as the biggest gamble it was making: the money involved to make the hulking machine was $5 billion (roughly $38 billion in 2014). But that bet — in the form of the first mainframe, the System/360 ? has paid off handsomely for Big Blue. Fifty years after it was launched, the ?first large family of computers to use interchangeable software and peripheral equipment? is still being used in almost all facets of human activity. Its future, IBM said, is still as rosy as the day it was introduced to the public on April 7, 1964. [caption id="attachment_17485" align="aligncenter" width="620"]IBM senior vice president and group executive for software and systems Steve Mills IBM senior vice president and group executive for software and systems Steve Mills[/caption] At the 50th anniversary bash that IBM held recently in New York City in honor of the mainframe, top company executives heaped praises on the mainframe, stressing that it is more relevant now than ever before. IBM?s second-in-command, Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive for software and systems, said in his speech that the work and role of the mainframe is definitely not done yet. ?This occasion is not merely about celebrating an anniversary. It?s about a journey that is transforming the world. The mainframe will be here for a very long time,? Mills told the audience in 583 Park Avenue. Humps along the way While the mainframe did dominate the computing world from the moment it rolled out of its plant in Poughkeepsie, New York, its journey as the preferred workhorse of the biggest companies in the world wasn?t always a smooth one. When IBM hit the proverbial wall in the 1990s, doomsayers also predicted the end of the mainframe. With a proprietary technology and a ridiculous price tag, its future appeared bleak especially with the onslaught of white box servers from hard-charging competitors. Linda Sanford, senior vice president for enterprise transformation at IBM, remembers too well this juncture in the company?s history when the Big Blue was on a tailspin. ?It was I think from 1993 to 1998 when (former CEO) Lou Gerstner asked me to come in to help reinvent the mainframe. And so, over that five-year period, our team worked to transform the mainframe for the next decade,? Sanford recalls. [caption id="attachment_17486" align="aligncenter" width="600"]IBM senior vice president for enterprise transformation Linda Sanford IBM senior vice president for enterprise transformation Linda Sanford[/caption] As the team?s female leader, Sanford took in charge of the mainframe plant in Poughkeepsie and rallied her engineers in re-creating the mainframe, then as now, the pride and joy of IBM. The lady executive said two big elements marked that transformation ? the shift from bi-polar processor technology to CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor), which is still in use today; and the opening of its proprietary technology and embracing Linux as a platform. ?These changes allowed us to attract new workloads on the mainframe. This story continues to hold true to this day. With Linux, we run a lot of open capabilities,? Sanford says. Despite being on the throes of death during the mid-90s, Sanford said IBM did not lose faith on the mainframe. ?We always thought that it is a system that can be reinvented and transformed. We made a very big $5-billion dollar bet, but it was a gamble that has really paid off,? she says. Sanford says that in the US, and most probably in most parts of globe as well, it?s almost impossible not to have contact with the mainframe, although not always directly. ?In almost everything that you do everyday, there?s always a mainframe behind it,? she notes. ?For example, every time you take a bath, the energy system that controls these things uses a mainframe. Every time you go to an ATM, the backend transactions are happening on the mainframe. When you book your airline tickets, it is also being done on the mainframe. Every core activity that is being done by every industry is done on the mainframe.? With lesson learned from an earlier era, Sanford says IBM is again in the process of reinventing the mainframe to make it attuned to the four forces now engulfing the ICT industry — cloud computing, Big Data and analytics, social, and mobile. According to Sanford, one adjustment that the company made recently is put Hadoop, an open-source software for storage and large-scale processing of data, on the mainframe. ?This now allows users to analyze their data inside the mainframe. You don?t need to take out data to do analytics. At the same time, you keep the data in its secured place. It?s much more efficient and you don?t get huge latency,? the official says. Asked if the cloud computing model is the one that could bring the mainframe to knees as companies can now just buy their computing requirements piece-by-piece instead of buying bulky mainframes, Sanford this is unlikely to happen. ?The mainframe was the cloud before the cloud became the cloud. It?s an integrated system. It has leveraged on its strength over the last 50 years and reinvented to integrate new capabilities,? she says, adding that those which offer cloud services are also using the mainframe. Moreover, mission-critical businesses such as utilities and banks run on mainframes, she says. ?It?s their core business and it?s not just a little app.? In terms of energy consumption, Sanford says IBM engineers have also significantly shrunk the power requirements of the mainframe. ?We did this while the performance of mainframes improved by 78,000 percent and its memory capacity improved 786,000 times.? Sanford said IBM has fine-tuned the mainframe to make it the ideal tool for the next 50 years. ?Change is becoming faster than any other time. The four forces ? cloud, analytics, mobile, and social ? are all happening all at once. In the past, you would only have one at a time. But we?re going to transform and evolve the mainframe to tackle this head on.? [gallery type="slideshow" ids="17487,17488,17489,17494,17493,17492,17491,17490,17495,17496,17497,17498,17499,17500,17501,17502,17503,17504,17505,17506,17507,17508"] Sure enough, during the anniversary week, IBM announced a series of new enterprise cloud offerings for the mainframe, which includes the first System z-based integrated system offering, the IBM Enterprise Cloud System. The new IBM Enterprise Cloud System provides an integrated platform, built upon open standards, for clients and service providers looking to build out a cloud environment capable of supporting mission-critical workloads. Additionally, the company also bared a utility pricing model that will provide service providers with the ability to pay for Linux-based mainframe cloud infrastructure over time based on compute consumption, rather than system capacity. As part of the announcement, IBM also unveiled a new pricing model for mobile mainframe clients that will allow them to pay only for the computing capacity they need and use. For the long haul Tom Rosamilla, senior vice president for sales and distribution at IBM, says the company?s commitment on the mainframe remains ironclad even as it is currently in the process of selling its x86 server business to Chinese computer Lenovo. The x86 business refers to IBM?s Intel-based servers, which are primarily aimed at the entry-level market. ?While we are moving out of x86 and in industries that are being commoditized, we still remain deeply committed in our hardware business, particularly in the mainframe business. It?s essential to the needs of our clients and part of our integrated system approach,? Rosamilla said. ?And so, when we saw retail hardware being commoditized, we sold our business to Toshiba. When we saw hard disk drive commoditized, we sold it to Hitachi. We saw x86 servers commoditized, we sold it to Lenovo,? he said. Rosamilla says buying the things that IBM has discarded doesn?t mean that it?s bad for the buyers. ?It only means that you have to run it on a scale and volume, which IBM typically doesn?t do. We want an innovator?s margin. We want to go for higher margin. We also have the same policy for the software side and the services side,? the executive explained. Asked how countries like the Philippines can benefit from high-end but expensive products like the mainframe, Rosamilla said people should not always focus on the disadvantages of being a developing economy. ?What they don?t see is that countries like the Philippines can leapfrog and avoid the mistakes of the Western world,? he says. ?For example, it terms of banking, you don?t need to put up many branches because you can do mobile banking. You can do all transactions via your mobile phone,? he adds. ?The role of the mainframe is not diminished, however, because it is there working at the backend.? [gallery type="slideshow" ids="17515,17516,17517,17518,17519,17520,17521,17522,17523,17524,17525"]]]>

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