PSI: The Newest Plug-Compatible Mainframe on the Block

PSI officials pledge to indemnify customers against liability and expect a return to normalcy -- post-litigation -- with Big Blue.

Late last year, IBM Corp. filed suited against mainframe upstart Platform Solutions Inc. (PSI), alleging patent infringement and other improprieties.

At around the same time, Big Blue’s previously cordial relationship with another PC mainframe vendor—emulation specialist Fundamental Software Inc. (FSI)—also turned frosty. As a result, FSI was unable to renew its licenses for several of IBM’s mainframe patents—including, crucially, patents for both 31-bit and 64-bit operation. It was on the 64-bit issue, in particular, that discussions ground to a halt, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

FSI is not currently reselling its FLEX-ES systems, pending the outcome of its ongoing talks with IBM. That makes PSI the only game in town for customers in the market for an affordable IBM mainframe alternative.

To the extent that this helps simplify buying decisions for these customers, it also further complicates them. After all, any customer willing to consider PSI’s plug-compatible mainframe (PCM) product must also take into account the company’s ongoing litigation against IBM.

PSI officials say that shouldn’t be an issue, however: the company pledges to indemnify customers against liability, for starters, and it also expects a return to normalcy—post-litigation—with Big Blue. "We will absolutely indemnify them. Furthermore, we do this with the ISVs as well. We really haven’t had any issues on this point," says Linda Zider, PSI’s executive vice-president and general manager.

Zider, like CEO Michael Maulick (and several other PSI principals, for that matter) is a former IBMer. Perhaps because of their familiarity with IBM’s mainframe business, she acknowledges, officials didn’t expect Big Blue to react quite the way it did. "Because we were familiar with what IBM had done in the past with PCM, we had every reason to believe that we would develop a normal relationship based on cross-licensing and licensing fees and so forth, and that’s the path that we went down up until really recently, up until the last year," she comments. "My personal view is that it’s obviously unfortunate that this happened, I’m sure IBM has their own reasons for why they think they need to do this, but we obviously have our own rationale for doing what we’re doing."

Some mainframe watchers have other concerns, too. After all, PSI resells rebranded Itanium servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), one of Big Blue’s biggest rivals, and there’s a nagging suspicion in some quarters that HP and Itanium co-conspirator Intel Corp. plan to prop up PSI as part of a broader mainframe migration strategy.

Zider, for her part, flatly denies this. More to the point, she’s able to marshal a number of talking points that help address such claims.

"The basic business and investing principles behind the founding [of PSI] were that this company would be hardware-independent, so we could take whatever we develop and put it on any Itanium platform. We have done that. If you look at the list of Itanium-compatible [vendors], we have developed [systems] for several of them," she argues. "Why would we want to play a part in killing something [the mainframe] that we have such a tremendous stake in? That’s one of the reasons you haven’t seen us join Microsoft’s mainframe migration alliance. They’ve approached us about it, but we told them that’s not what we’re about. We’re not a wean-off-it [i.e., the mainframe] platform. That would be counter-intuitive to our long-term business strategy."

PSI partners with a number of vendors – including, as Zider notes, HP. Moreover, she says, if IBM decided to drop its suit and approach her company about partnering with it to produce a PC mainframe on xSeries hardware, PSI would certainly be open to such an arrangement. That’s speculation on several levels, however: IBM is fiercely protective of its mainframe turf, insiders say, and Big Blue dropped its support for Itanium nearly two years ago.

Right to be Wary?

There’s a sense in which IBM is right to be wary of PSI, too. There’s the HP angle, for starters, but there’s also a multi-platform value proposition that outstrips the flexibility of even System z’s multi-platform credentials. After all, PSI pushes its PCM systems as not just mainframe replacements, but as replacements for distributed Unix, Linux, and Windows systems. PSI isn’t only chipping away at IBM’s mainframe mythos—the mainframe isn’t some mystical black cabinet with ethereal reliability, availability, and scalability (RAS) features, Zider says—it’s also attacking Big Blue’s cross-platform value proposition.

In the same way, it stands to reason that PSI’s multi-platform play—like that of Unisys Corp., for example—also lends itself to a mainframe migration scenario: Sure, you can run all of your applications and services on a single, standard system, and you can phase out those expensive mainframe applications in favor of Unix, Linux, or Windows alternatives.

Ziger insists that this simply isn’t the case: "If you thought we wanted to have the mainframe market decline, that wouldn’t be very good for our business overall. We believe in the mainframe, we believe that all the work that we’ve done. These applications aren’t going to go away. There might not be a lot of new applications for the mainframe, but the applications that are there are morphing to leverage the mainframe."

Nevertheless, acknowledges Christian Reilly, vice president of product management and marketing with PSI, the company’s multi-platform value proposition does resound with customers, but mostly because it gives them a one-stop-shop for platform consolidation.

"Customers look at this multi-OS platform and start thinking about how they can leverage that. Obviously it depends on the size of the customer. Smaller shops (say, 2000 MIPs and under) might just want to replace an older mainframe [system]. Bigger customers, though, look at how they’ll leverage all those capabilities."

PSI in Production

At this point, a dozen customers have deployed PSI’s PCM systems in production environments, Reilly claims, a good record for a solution that started shipping late last year.

Since then, Reilly maintains, PSI has fielded a large volume of inquiries from customers interested in non-IBM System z mainframe alternatives: "There is such a pent-up demand for having a second source for mainframes that inevitably it comes back to that conversation today more than it does to multi-OS. It’s just natural. There hasn’t been a competitor out there to IBM for five years."

PSI doesn’t promote any pre-configured systems, says Zider; at this point, there aren’t any discrete 100 MIP-equivalent, 500 MIP-equivalent, 1,000 MIP-equivalent (and so on) models from which customers can choose. Instead, all of PSI’s hardware is built to order. "We are able to configure to meet the customer’s requirements. We can scale from an entry-level machine to a big platform."

Elsewhere, PSI taps into its Amdahl legacy to help address software metering and workload licensing requirements, says Reilly. "We report back machine type, model, capacity, and MSU rating. Part of spinning out of Amdahl was that we also inherited their SPA [workload licensing implementation], and we’ve updated that for current 64-bit operation. We’ve had those numbers vetted by outside consultants and it’s pretty standard fare," he notes.

PSI claims to compete favorably with IBM in both performance and flexibility. Its PC mainframe LPARs can host System z, Windows, Unix, and Linux images, Zider says, and PSI supports micro-partitioning. Support for System z features such as HiperSockets and integrated encryption is in the works, she maintains, and PSI today offers a plug-compatible solution to which customers can connect IBM storage (or storage emulators, if need be).

NOTE: IBM initially indicated a willingness to participate in this article. Over a period of several weeks, however, IBM cited scheduling or availability issues for the inability to provide an company executive to respond.

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