Clouds in my coffee
CA Technologies did its own survey, and rather than just whispering the C-Word in one part of the survey, it based the whole premise of the conversation with 300 mainframe shops on this question: Is the mainframe the ultimate cloud platform?
This study, which was conducted only in Europe by Vanson Bourne on behalf of CA Technologies and which you can read here, had 79 per cent of mainframe shops saying that their mainframes would be "an integral part of their cloud computing strategies. Of those polled, 70 per cent said that cloud computing would sustain or extend their mainframe environments, 74 per cent said the mainframe will have a role in any cloud computing initiative at their company. Survey respondents came from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Benelux, Scandinavia, Russia, Poland, Turkey, and the Czech Republic.
The mainframe has its issues, as any proprietary platform does. But the IBM mainframe is under stress in particular because of the graying of the workforce that understands how to make these machines sit up and bark. Averaged across all countries, about 44 per cent of the respondents to the CA survey said the aging of the mainframe workforce and the difficulty in finding replacements for retiring workers will make the mainframe less viable in the future. Still, 82 per cent of the companies polled in the CA survey said they expected to use the mainframe the same or more in the future as they do today. And the big reason why? Because mainframes are reliable and understood, even if they are pricey.
All of this talk of cloud computing and hybrid architectures probably sounds familiar to people who have been around data centers for a couple of decades. Minicomputers surrounded mainframes two decades ago and sucked workloads off the big iron, to be followed in short order by Unix machines and then client/server workloads. Then along came the commercialization of the Internet and its Web technologies. And somehow, thanks to the vast fortunes that mainframe shops have spent on databases and applications, the mainframes have persisted at thousands of companies.
The fact that x64-based private clouds can arguably be built with mainframe-like capabilities will no doubt pull even more applications off some mainframes. But IBM's zBX strategy could, if it has some real meat to it instead of some pretty block diagrams, pull just as many workloads back onto a hybrid mainframe that gives mainframers more control and IBM more profits until the next wave hits. We'll see how this tug of war turns out in about two or three years. ®
Power consumption will probably become an increasing factor
Running a traditional mainframe workload on a mainframe uses a lot less power (and space) than doing the same thing on loads of blades. For people who have started measuring their computing needs by the acre, the price tag isn't so off-putting (if it helps negate the risk of a big "Green Tax Axe", clobbering them, somewhere down the line). That's probably an argument for assembling racks more like a mainframes, however, rather than preserving the 'mainframe approach' to computing. A lot of large scale computing, these days, isn't actually done with mainframes.
Mainframe shops are often outsourcing or managed services companies, though, in my experience. So any company saying they "don't use mainframes" - when the entire payroll and HR runs through one that their service partner operates - is a bit like someone withdrawing cash from an ATM and claiming they "have no use for computers". The mainframe approach still has its place, because there's an awful lot of that kind of computing, still to be done, and neither the nature nor he scale of that sort of work is about to change.
As for training the workforce; well - whether things go Cloud or stay Mainframe - anyone coming into the jobs market, with a background in desktop computing, only, will find their skills increasingly irrelevant to the needs of business (the status quo isn't an option). Maybe home programmers will have cut their teeth by renting space form Amazon, or maybe companies will just have to rediscover the concept of training people?
As I see it, the Mainframe's greatest threat is their relatively low turnover. You just don't buy a big Z and expect to be replacing it any time this decade. There comes a threshold, where the renewal cycle is too slow to maintain the supply. To maintain relevance, mainframes will have to become increasingly like Trigger's Broom - where the money comes from a continuing components upgrade, and the occasional sale of a great big box, for the bits to go in. To some extent it's already like that, but then, what is the physical difference between the mainframe, and a rack which has (as it must) adopted a mainframe-like approach to parts-assembly, power consumption and workload?
Even though main street is just now seeing the use of Virtual Machines / partitioning - these tools have been on mainframes since the 1970's.
Trust me, Intel and the likes have a LONG way to go before they get their products to compete.
selling the cloud
Back in the early 90's I was trying to sell the benefits of Microsoft and Unix servers to Legal and General.
The IT manager listened to my pitch and agreed that it was the way to go, but it will never replace the mainframe.
Asking why not he said "Simple the mainframe heats the swimming pool".