When Tristan Goguen, president of Toronto-based Internet Light and Power Inc. (ILAP), an Internet service provider, told a corporate client he would be speaking with a journalist about mainframe technology, the client, not surprisingly, responded with, "Do people still use those things?"
The short answer is yes. In fact, many mainframe supporters claim that close to 70 percent of the world's data still resides on mainframe systems.
Once defined by their size, early mainframes were large enough to fill a room and cost millions of dollars to buy and support. In addition, ancient mainframes were associated with centralized computing. Today's mainframes come in different sizes, some small enough to run on a laptop, and can be used to serve distributed computing environments.
While most of the business world has moved to the client/server computing environment, "Big Iron" continues to thrive in vertical markets including the financial, health care and government sectors.
However, the great debate amongst IT experts doesn't necessarily reflect which technology is better, but rather which is easier to manage, offers the best TCO and which environment will be supported years from now.
The mainframe solution ING Canada runs its legacy applications on two IBM Corp. eServer zSeries 800 mainframes and the company's IT department would have it no other way.
Nearly two years ago, the Montreal-based insurance and financial firm faced a technological debate. ING had cancelled its outsourcing arrangement with Ottawa-based Computer Sciences Corp. with plans to move all its IT in-house. The challenge: support all its legacy applications in addition to its new Web-based client-facing applications in a client/server environment or revert back to mainframe systems.
While ING opted to go the mainframe route, the firm's reasoning behind the decision was based on several factors.
"We did capacity planning for the next three years and found that we would have required 32 servers by 2005 (in a client/server environment)," explained Louis Cyr, vice-president of Quebec Region and Infrastructure Services for ING Canada. "We also looked at the mainframe. We found that the mainframe could support our needs in one single physical box with several virtual boxes."
ING looked at robustness, availability and reliability, but placed heavy importance on disaster recovery planning. According to Cyr, the task of recovering 32 different boxes posed much more of a challenge than recovering the mainframe systems.
"Every year we do some disaster recovery tests with our mainframes and within 18 hours we can recover all of our businesses -- the applications, the data, the operating systems," Cyr explained. "When we looked at recovering 32 different servers, it was going to be much more complicated and would take much more time ... ."
IBM all but owns the mainframe market today, but Big Blue is the first to admit that one size does not fit all when it comes to buying Big Iron. The company's most recent offering, the z890, is tailored to meet the needs of the mid-size market and was launched to commemorate the mainframe's 40th anniversary.
According to Francois Lachance, business unit executive, zSeries Canada for IBM in Montreal, a recent common use for IBM's mainframes is to host enterprise applications including PeopleSoft and SAP. IBM currently has more than 1,000 systems running SAP.
"The mainframe is used basically as a database server," Lachance said."On the front end, customers use the pSeries (Unix offering). This allows us to use the best of each technology where it makes sense. The zSeries makes a good database server because it offers great scalability, great reliability and great availability."
Additionally, Lachance said WebSphere on zSeries is becoming an increasingly popular environment. ING Canada has done just that. The firm runs WebSphere on Linux from a z900 to host all its B2C applications.
"All our policy management systems including our automobile insurance, home insurance, claims, accounts payable and our statistics run on the mainframe," Cyr said. "On the z900 we have all our Web sites ... and we have also moved our homegrown CRM application to the z900. Everything that is under WebSphere is sitting on a single box."
For ILAP's Goguen, his mainframe experience has left him with a very different view of Big Iron. Nearly 10 years ago, Goguen handled a Hewlett-Packard 3000 Series 70 -- more of a mini-mainframe, but a mainframe nonetheless. The system, despite its robustness and reliability, hit Goguen's pain threshold.
"We had one person dedicated to come in once every three months to do preventative maintenance. Another person was dedicated to operating system upgrades. Whenever an operating system upgrade came along you had to have a specialist install the patch. We also found that there was a need for a lot of third-party tools, which added additional cost to the equation."
When Goguen and partners started ILAP in 1995, using mainframe systems was not an option. The company runs predominantly Sun Microsystems Inc. 280Rs in a client/server environment.
"Equipment gets old over time because it just may not have enough capacity," he said. "I don't know if I'd be able to afford two mainframes, but I certainly can afford five or six smaller machines."
According to Steve Shaw, business development manager, enterprise storage and servers group with HP Canada in Mississauga, Ont., many traditional mainframe applications are being offloaded to less cumbersome and less expensive hardware.
HP's strategy is to act as that go-between to ease customer pain in terms of maintenance costs and software licensing, and to offer the computing infrastructure to enable the offloading of applications.
"There is certainly a place for (mainframe computing) and I want to stress that," Shaw said. "Mainframe computing is not going away. But there is no question that some of the workloads that have been traditional mainframe workloads are being done at a much better price metric on open systems."
Shaw explained that in the foreseeable future at least, mainframe and client/server environments will continue to co-exist. Information kept on mainframes is accessible to other applications sitting on HP servers. For example, Shaw put forth HP's storage infrastructure.
"Our storage technologies have been designed to work in multi-OS environments ... including mainframe environments," he said. "If people want to build a big storage farm or SAN for example, they have to make sure they choose a storage device that has a fibre interconnect that can connect to mainframes. These are do-able technologies that have been around for some time."
Numbers from IDC Canada Ltd. showed mainframe revenues held 11 percent of the Canadian server market spend in 2002. This year, the firm predicts that number will drop to around eight percent, and will decline further to just over six percent by 2008.
According to Alan Freedman, research manager, infrastructure hardware for IDC Canada in Toronto, there are some key drivers affecting this change.
"First is the declining price of servers in general, particularly at the high end," he explained. "People are not going to pay the exorbitant premiums anymore. Secondly, the performance and the reliability of mainframe alternatives like the high-end Unix servers and even clustered Windows systems are...in most cases less expensive."
Additionally, a lack of skilled individuals available to maintain the machines is a constant dilemma for mainframe users. For ING's Cyr, opting to run Linux on the z900 has helped.
"We run SuSe Linux, so we have those technical young guys to maintain the system," he said.
For HP's Shaw, supportability is a concern as computer science grads are bringing C++ and Java skills to the table.
"Those are not traditional programming languages on the mainframe," Shaw said. "Now you can get environments that use those languages on the mainframe. But I think the big concern for most companies is the legacy code they have. Frankly, it's that legacy code that is running their business."
According to IBM's Lachance, using products like WebSphere adds a layer around old COBOL applications to enable tech newbies to use Java to upgrade legacy applications.
"Even if you wanted, you couldn't re-write everything that has been developed over the past 30 years. With WebSphere, you can develop overtop of previously developed applications."
One size does not fit all
In addition to a lack of a skilled workforce, the growing popularity of grid and supercomputing is also putting a thorn in the mainframe's side, although the wound is not deep. IBM's eServer strategy essentially tells customers "there is no panacea." Lachance explained that IBM has had a reputation of offering solutions that meet customer needs -- not force-fitting infrastructure.
"At the end of the day, if you asked Sun (Microsystems Inc.) about their offerings, it will be Sun Solaris or Microsoft Windows. In our case we have several offerings because we don't believe that one size fits all. There is no panacea in IT. When you have several offerings, you can mix and match the technology where it best makes sense."
Infrastructure becomes a matter of preference. For ING's Cyr, hype in the IT industry is to blame for giving mainframes a bad rap.
"To me, the mainframe is still a very good platform. Personally, I was never too keen on the client/server.
I tried to avoid going in that direction and I am very happy I did. When I look at the dollars that are spent on client/server applications, I don't think they were well spent."