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Microsoft pumps cash into IBM bete noire

'Openness and choice' for Big Blue mainframe shops

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Microsoft has pumped an undisclosed sum into TurboHercules, a French outfit that seeks to undercut IBM's mainframe business.

The cash infusion, which happened last week, comes hot on the heels of Microsoft's orchestration of a $450m purchase of 882 patents from Novell as part of Attachmate's acquisition of that software maker.

TurboHercules is co-headquartered in Paris, France, and Seattle, Washington. Presumably, it's in Paris to gain the protection of its EU antitrust regulator and in Seattle to, well, be close to Microsoft. The company was set up in early 2009 to offer commercial support for the Hercules mainframe hardware emulator, which allows IBM's mainframe operating systems and their applications to run on x64 servers sporting Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, in September 2009.

The Hercules mainframe hardware emulator was created by Roger Bowler a decade ago. It's written in C and assembly code. The code behind Hercules is open source and distributed under the Q Public License originally used by application development tool maker Trolltech for its Qt products. The Hercules emulator can emulate the System/360, the System/370, the ESA/390, and the z architectures. It runs on 32-bit x86, 64-bit x64, and Itanium processors. Very old IBM mainframe operating systems that are in the public domain - including OS/360, DOS/360, DOS/VS, MVS, VM/370, and TSS/370 - can be legally deployed on top of the Hercules emulator.

TurboHercules is too smart to take a direct run at the mainframe by saying that Hercules can be used to move licenses for IBM mainframe operating systems to Windows or Linux platforms. (For all intents and purposes, Solaris and Mac OS are unimportant for Hercules except perhaps on demo machines). But TurboHercules contends that IBM's software licenses for z/OS and other modern mainframe operating systems have provisions in them that allow customers to restore their licenses to another machine in the event of a disaster so long as the primary mainframe is dead. And so TurboHercules is pitching its commercial-grade Hercules as a DR option, particularly for companies using vintage System/390 and ES/9000, and zSeries mainframes that are long-since off IBM maintenance but still doing useful work out there in the data centers of the world.

Soon after incorporating in France, TurboHercules asked IBM France for a meeting to discuss how the modern mainframe OSes - z/OS, z/VSE, and z/VM - might be properly and legally licensed on Hercules. Thus far, IBM has not been interested in the idea. (Obviously.)

The US Department of Justice opened up an investigation into IBM's business practices regarding the mainframe a few weeks after TurboHercules launched, and TurboHercules filed a complaint with the European antitrust regulators in March of this year. In July, the EC opened up a formal probe into IBM's mainframe business in the wake of the company's eating of Platform Solutions, a provider of clone mainframes that settled its lawsuits with Big Blue in July 2008 and then agreed to be acquired by IBM for an undisclosed sum.

Microsoft and a bunch of private equity firms kicked $37m into Platform Solutions back in November 2007 to foster its growth and help it pay for its legal battles with Big Blue.

The explanation of the investment from Microsoft is much the same for TurboHercules as it was for Platform Solutions.

"Microsoft shares TurboHercules’ belief that there needs to be greater openness and choice for customers in the mainframe market," a Microsoft spokesperson told El Reg. "Customers tell us that they want greater interoperability between the mainframe and other platforms, including systems that run Windows Server. For that reason, we continue to invest in companies like TurboHercules to develop new solutions for our mutual customers."

It's all about customer choice, you see. Not about embracing, extending, and exterminating the mainframe at all. Just like IBM's mainframers love other iron, particularly machinery that can run emulated mainframe applications.

Bill Miller, chief executive officer at TurboHercules, would not divulge how much money Microsoft has put into TurboHercules or what kind of stake it now has in the Franco-American company. He did confirm that this is the first outside investor in TurboHercules, and the company is hoping to get other backers. (Intel is the obvious other potential backer.) Miller said that TurboHercules would no divulge how many customers it has, but said it has "just a few" and that it is "talking to several more." With the limited amount of money TurboHercules had to start, Miller said it was difficult to ramp up sales and development on Hercules and other mainframe-related products.

"We have no had the funding to aggressively go after the market, and this investment is going to help that," Miller said.

No doubt some of the money will go towards paying for lawyers in Europe too. ®

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