Survey Says: Big Iron Remains Cornerstone of Enterprise Computing

If installed capacity is any indication, the mainframe isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Most mainframe shops have a huge MIPS footprint.

According to news from SHARE's recent user conference in Denver, mainframe software mainstay CA Inc.'s new survey confirms -- in one key respect -- what Big Iron boosters have been saying for a long time: the mainframe is, and will likely remain, a cornerstone of enterprise computing.

If installed capacity is any indication, the mainframe isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Most mainframe users have a huge MIPS footprint: 35 percent of respondents say they’re using at least 10,000 MIPs -- while fully one quarter say they’re using 25,000 MIPS or more. On the other hand, CA’s survey suggests that a still-significant cohort of mainframe users -- nearly 25 percent -- are using less than 500 MIPs. This sizeable market is starting to grab the attention of IBM itself -- along with CA and other mainframe ISVs.

Vince Re, chief architect of CA’s mainframe practice, points to Big Blue’s introduction of a System z Business Class (BC) mainframe package and cites IBM’s market-seeding efforts in China, where it’s pushing Linux-ready z10 BC mainframes at a nice -- sub-$250,000 -- price tag.

In most shops, Re notes, there’s considerable duplication among workloads: in other words, many enterprises are running the same workloads -- e.g., resource management, IT performance management, transactional and database applications, and so on -- on both mainframe and distributed platforms. System z mainframes clearly outstrip distributed systems as hosts for transactional applications and storage management software. Sadly, Big Iron continues to trail its distributed counterparts when it comes to both ERP and Web applications; for example, twice as many shops opt for distributed platforms over mainframe systems to host their Web apps.

It’s a vexing issue, according to Re: distributed platforms are tops in the red-hot Web apps segment, while mainframes remain the choice for venerable transactional workloads. In spite of IBM’s efforts to promote Big Iron as a can’t-miss platform for next-gen Web application workloads -- with efforts like its zSeries Application Assist Processor (zAAP) and its recent System z Solution editions (i.e., prepackaged bundles) for both SOA and Application Development -- the mainframe still has some catching up to do.

On the other hand, CA’s survey suggests that there might be something to IBM’s TCO-centric mainframe marketing efforts. Shops spend just 38 percent of their annual IT budgets on their mainframe assets; their distributed assets, on the other hand, gobble up nearly 60 percent of their IT budgets. Notwithstanding Web applications and transactional applications, enterprises are running many of the same workloads on both platforms.

Considering Costs

True, shops tend to opt for distributed systems over mainframes for costly ERP applications -- and CA’s survey doesn’t provide any insight into what percentage of an enterprise’s IT assets are being hosted on either platform. However, some companies appear to be more receptive to the idea of a cost differential, in favor of the mainframe, when looking at the two environments.

For example, more than three-quarters of shops report that managing the large numbers of servers in their data centers has become too costly; two-thirds of these respondents confess that as their distributed costs grow, they’re becoming more receptive to the idea of running multiple workloads on a single mainframe.

According to CA’s survey, the mainframe is actually perceived as more cost-effective (by a double-digit margin) than either distributed or cloud-based systems. Similarly, the mainframe is more strongly identified with being “Green” (by nearly twice as many respondents) and with affordable personnel costs (by a much slimmer margin). Distributed systems, on the other hand, are perceived as easier to virtualize (albeit by a slim margin) and as more innovative (by a wider, but by no means runaway, gap).

CA’s survey yielded other interesting results Big Blue has made the issue of data center growth -- citing both the issue of shrinking floor space and the cost of data center real-estate -- a major component of its Green Mainframe push. Based on CA’s survey data, that message is likely to appeal to enterprise shops: nearly half (46 percent) of respondents strongly agree that data center floor space was a “critical” issue for their organizations.

Also of note, 46 percent of shops expect to depend more heavily on their mainframes -- over the next 24 months, at least -- than they did previously. Conversely, shops probably aren’t doing as much as they should to invest in staffing their mainframe futures: only 40 percent say they are “in the process” of recruiting, hiring, and training new mainframe technologies; of these, just 14 percent strongly agree that hiring and training new mainframes is imperative.

CA says it received more than 100 responses from its target audience -- i.e., shops running System z mainframes. CA didn’t exactly scrape the bottom of the Big Iron barrel in order to fill out its sample: nearly half (42 percent) of respondents had direct mainframe responsibilities (e.g., “IT Architect for IBM Mainframe Environment”), while the rest of the sample consisted of IT managers (25 percent), IT directors (22 percent), and vice presidents or C-level executives (11 percent). The bulk of respondents (70 percent) worked for companies that generated $2 billion or more in annual revenues.

Respondents in the financial services industry comprised the lion’s share (almost 40 percent) of survey-takers.

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