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For all the talk about the competition between server platforms, very few machines are in play at any given time. And this is particularly true of big iron, like high-end RISC/Unix servers, proprietary midrange gear, and mainframes. But when times get tough, those venerable back office systems start looking expensive, and that's exactly what Hewlett-Packard is hoping for - at least when it comes to the mainframe base. (Certainly not for Unix gear...)

HP announced today that in the past two years, it has helped more than 250 customers worldwide to migrate from mainframes to Integrity-based servers. According to John Pickett, worldwide manager of HP's mainframe alternative program, the vast majority of those mainframe shops have made the jump to Integrity machines running HP-UX, but a few have moved to Windows and others have opted for the fault-tolerant NonStop environment. Many, having made the jump, also deploy Linux on their iron.

The mainframes that have been replaced have the usual mix of IBM systems software - COBOL applications, VSAM files, CICS transaction monitors, DB2 and IMS databases, and such. About 80 per cent of the code that is running on the mainframes is homegrown stuff, which means HP needs to partner with Micro Focus, Clerity, Relativity Technologies, TmaxSoft, and others with application rehosting tools designed to move mainframe apps to other platforms.

In some cases, such as with the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system in San Francisco, a homegrown set of human resources software was replaced with PeopleSoft applications running on HP-UX, cutting some $1.5m in hardware leasing, software licensing, and system maintenance costs from the IT budget.

HP has been chasing IBM and other mainframes for 25 years, and while the number of deals is small - it has averaged around 100 per year for a while, but is accelerating, according to Pickett - the amount of money a mainframe maker like IBM loses over a five year span and the amount a company like HP replacing a mainframe with its own gear gains over that same term is a big swing. Over hundreds of shops, it can be billions of dollars. And once one mainframe is ported to another server, the next port is that much easier to sell (provided you don't screw up the port). The point is: Small numbers sometimes have a big impact.

HP's announcement of its mainframe takeouts is obviously keyed to the worsening economic situation and IBM's recent announcement of its System z10 Business Class entry mainframes, which debuted three weeks ago. While IBM has specialty engines on mainframes that lower the cost of supporting Linux, Java, and DB2 workloads compared to regular mainframe engines, the lower price still leaves a big gap, even on the new z10 BC boxes.

"Even when you move down to a Linux specialty engine, it is an order of magnitude more expensive than Linux on an Integrity machines," says Pickett. Moreover, the Integrity machine, in that it supports HP-UX, Linux, Windows, OpenVMS, and NonStop operating systems, can be pitched as a more open platform. Not everyone is convinced, of course. Most mainframe shops have their own prejudices and preferences, just like every other kind of shop out there. That's one reason why HP has been giving away a freebie NonStop-Integrity blade server to interested mainframe shops since June. A test drive is a key component to a sale.

While Pickett was happy to talk about how HP's mainframe alternative program has been racking up the sales in the past two years, the one thing he didn't want to talk about was Electronic Data Systems. HP bought EDS for its outsourcing and services expertise, but what it got as part of the deal is one of the largest IBM mainframe shops in the world. While heads were rolling at EDS in the wake of the acquisition to cut costs, mainframes themselves may soon be rolling. If HP customers can save up to 70 per cent by getting off the mainframe - as HP contends - then the EDS operations are going to be under intense pressure to port mainframe applications to another high-end platform. Something, perhaps, that looks a lot like an Integrity server.

Maybe IBM should have bought EDS to protect it second-largest buyer of mainframes? The presumption, of course, is that IBM's own Global Services is the largest buyer of mainframes in the world. Only IBM knows for sure who the biggest shops are, but here's the important number to consider: There are only 10,000 mainframe footprints in the world. Every one, from IBM's point of view, is sacred. Which is why IBM has been cutting mainframe prices and at the same time going after the HP 9000 and Integrity Unix bases with its own Power Systems running AIX and Linux. This strategy may not protect the IBM mainframe base, but it does maximize profits. And that is what Big Blue is all about. ®

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