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Resurgence of the mainframe

Despite the much predicted demise of mainframes, these 'Big Iron' number crunchers still form the central IS platform in many organizations. by M Ganesh

Nothing can compare with mainframes when it comes to reliability, availability, security and data integrity

Mainframes, the stalwarts that shaped information technology in the last era are making a slow but steady comeback. They enable users to perform functions that would otherwise be difficult (or impossible) on other type of servers.

There are many recent examples of organizations using mainframes as a part of their IT infrastructure to boost productivity. Borders Group used mainframes to consolidate its two human resource systems that managed payroll, personnel and benefits information for its 40,000 employees. When Motorola implemented SAP R/3 for almost 30,000 users worldwide, mainframes enabled its users to automatically share workload in a continuous computing environment. Nabisco, the cookie giant, had the database server component of SAP R/3 implemented on mainframes as its manageability, availability and scalability could ensure a quick turnaround in the global order management functions.

Doomsayers have repeatedly touted the irrelevance and demise of mainframes in this era especially with the whole gamut of current and alternative technologies that are transforming the landscape of the new economy. But in the midst of this technological upheaval, mainframes present a strong base for Internet technology to thrive on.

Resurgence of the mainframe
Through the years, mainframes were where the corporate business data resided. Their relevance still holds true because of their great ability to support data loads generated by the flurry of Internet activity—PCs, thin clients, mobile personal data assistants, Internet appliances run by HTML browsers over Unix and Windows servers—that could amount to billions of transactions per week.

Looking at various industry tests and analyst commentaries, nothing can compare with mainframes when it comes to reliability, availability, security and data integrity. Also, they provide immense I/O bandwidth, memory and disk space. As a whole, the total cost of ownership (TCO) of owning a mainframe is less, thereby making it lower than the TCO of many physical Web servers.

Clearly, today's Internet economy is being built on the basis that everything changes. It's about keeping an open mind to new technologies, media, users, and trying to bring these together to create new business opportunities.

Often, organizations have to juggle with perpetual dilemmas like:

  • Managing the explosion of transactions and associated costs
  • Providing fast response and continuous service to customers
  • Ensuring transaction security with superlative performance
  • Deciding on the right number of servers and integrating all these into existing TCP/IP networks
  • Flexibility in deploying new applications rapidly

Recognizing the need to move and evolve, many vendors are trying to integrate the mainframe's renowned reliability and availability features and management capabilities into their servers. However, despite constant efforts to take over the mainframe's traditional role and handle many of the large business computing tasks, these servers are still not able to match the mainframe's 99.999 percent level of availability covering both planned and unplanned outages.

Managing growth

Mainframes have the flexibility to run a growing, changeable set of applications on a shared set of physical resources while maintaining security and performance. When business demands change, the organization can dynamically reconfigure systems and add resources without disruption.

Many companies are suddenly finding themselves managing huge server farms in an attempt to meet growing, unpredictable user demands. Consolidating that work onto fewer physical servers allows companies to deliver greater responsiveness while cutting system management costs.

With mainframes, an organization can run multiple workloads and function in numerous ways. If another virtual server is needed, it can be added in seconds.

This is made possible by multiple systems running as independent virtual servers in separate partitions. Virtual machines can share processors, network, I/O paths, printers, disks and tape systems.

Application flexibility

The ideal mainframe should be able to embrace open standards and open sources with legacy technologies thus giving various flexible application deployment choices. This flexibility is extended when numerous capabilities are designed into hardware and software configuration that allow errors to be avoided, detected, isolated and corrected.


In every e-business transaction, it is always a challenge to provide utmost security across public networks while providing consistent high-performance. Mainframes should be able to integrate hardware and software to give confidentiality, authentication and access control while embracing various industry standards.

Mainframes deliver

Mainframes provide industry-leading levels of scalability, availability and security for extensive e-business and enterprise computing needs. In this Internet era, mainframes play a pivotal role in:

  • Designing and developing essential applications for enterprise e-business
  • Providing a highly secure, scalable, comprehensive, diverse and high-performance base for Internet and Java-enabled applications

Mainframes have the flexibility to manage numerous operating systems on a single server. Whether it is retaining, upgrading or implementing mainframe systems, the unanimous view is that mainframes will continue to be a central IS platform in any organizations' IT agenda.

It is still the tried and trusted machine to handle huge loads of data and information. This is especially important when data availability is so central in determining success or failure in the new economy.

Mainframes still prevail simply because they deliver all that Internet computing needs—high levels of availability, reliability, security, data integrity and sheer raw processing power. The function still remains—it's just a different setting, that's all.

M Ganesh is Country Manager, Enterprise Systems Group, IBM India Ltd and can be reached at mganesh@in.ibm.com. The views in the article are the authors own.

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