Seven Mainframe Myths No IT Decision-Maker Should Believe

Ignore these myths at your peril.

By Chris O'Malley

The IT industry has been intently focused on distributed and Internet platforms for the past two decades -- and for good reason. Desktop computing and Web-based architectures have delivered breakthroughs that have changed both business and society as a whole.

Unfortunately, during this period of intensive innovation, a number of myths have begun to surround mainframe computing. This is unfortunate, because these myths can prevent IT decision-makers from exploiting the benefits mainframes offer in today's high-volume, budget-constrained, security-sensitive, and energy-conscious corporate environments.

Here are seven myths that no IT decision-maker should believe:

Myth #1: The mainframe is merely a relic of the past

Reality: IBM continues to innovate impressively with the mainframe platform. In fact, today's mainframes are paragons of market-driven R&D. A new generation of specialty processors such as the zIIP (System z Integrated Information Processor) and zAAP (System z Application Assist Processor) enable selected workloads to be offloaded from core processors while still running on the same physical machine and within the same z/OS system image. IFL (Integrated Facility for Linux) provides co-hosting of multiple virtual native Linux systems as well. These virtual Linux hosts can exploit exclusive mainframe features such as HiperSockets (TCP/IP-based application-to-application communication that occurs within the mainframe without any actual physical network), -giving IT even greater flexibility in the way applications are deployed.

According to a recent IBM statement of direction, z10 mainframes will be able to concurrently host z/OS, Linux, and other systems within a single LPAR, with each virtualized system able to leverage low-cost specialty engines.

Rather than being a moribund "legacy" platform, the mainframe actually delivers the most advanced and sophisticated computing architecture on the market.

Myth #2: The mainframe only runs legacy applications

Reality: Because mainframes host more than 70 percent of the world's business-critical data (see note 1), a tremendous amount of effort has gone into the re-purposing of mainframe applications to satisfy evolving business requirements. This includes making mainframe applications and databases accessible via the Web. According to Software Strategies (see note 2), more than 60 percent of mainframe MIPS installed since 2000 are consumed by these new workloads. The availability of more than 800 commercial mainframe Linux solutions further underscores the usefulness of the mainframe for hosting a full range of business software.

Myth #3: The mainframe doesn't "play well" with distributed infrastructure

Reality: Mainframe operating systems and middleware fully support industry standards and distributed technologies -- including Java, TCP/IP, XML, SOAP, and Web services. This makes the mainframe perfectly suited for hosting components of multi-tier applications. In fact, the superior scalability, reliability, and security of the mainframe make it particularly smart to host certain components on the mainframe. Components of multi-tier applications running on the mainframe can also take advantage of features that are unique to the platform, such as hardware-assisted XML parsing.

In addition, mainframe hardware and software can be managed in a common manner with distributed, Web, and mobile infrastructure. This unified management can be as critical as the interoperability of the application components themselves, because best practices generally require troubleshooting, capacity planning, access administration, and other management tasks be performed consistently across all infrastructure that supports any given IT service and/or business process.

Myth #4: The mainframe is expensive

Reality: Because mainframes have a high initial acquisition cost in comparison to distributed systems, many people mistakenly believe that they are more expensive to own. Years of TCO (total cost of ownership) analyses, however, consistently prove that mainframes offer more processing power for the dollar than distributed servers. This cost-per-MIPS ratio improves every year. According to a December 2007 report by Gartner Group (End-of-Year Scorecard for Europe's Mainframe Players,, the cost per MIPS delivered by today's mainframes has fallen by two-thirds since 2001. Superior manageability also allows IT organizations to use a much greater percentage of available capacity on a mainframe than they can on the typical distributed server.

Even greater economies of scale arise from the fact that, by consolidating workloads, the mainframe requires fewer system administrators. Put the same number of applications on a large number of distributed servers, and payroll costs for the additional systems management staff become many times that of the mainframe. All these factors combined -- lower cost-per-MIPS, greater utilization of capacity, and staffing economies-of-scale -- make the mainframe a uniquely cost-effective platform for database and application hosting.

Myth #5: The mainframe is energy-inefficient

Reality: Economies of scale and advanced engineering also make mainframes far more energy-efficient than other server types. According to IBM, it would take approximately 1,500 IBM x86 servers to provide the capacity of a z10 mainframe. Based on this number, a z10 mainframe consumes about 85 percent less energy for comparable workloads -- taking into account power consumption for both the processing itself and the cooling of the hardware.

Add to these power savings reduced floor-space requirements, and it's clear that the mainframe is among the "greenest" computing solutions on the market. The implications of this energy efficiency extend beyond the cost savings alone, because issues such as corporate carbon credits also have to be factored into data center decision-making.

Myth #6: The mainframe is an IBM monopoly

Reality: IBM is the sole manufacturer of mainframe servers. However, mainframe users are not wholly dependent on IBM for their mainframe environments. Competing vendors offer peripheral hardware (DASD/tape solutions, communications devices, printers, etc.) business applications, and management software. In fact, other vendors -- not IBM -- lead the market in application development tools, security solutions, workload management, and several other software categories. This competition fosters innovation and keeps pricing competitive.

Myth #7: The mainframe can only be run by old people

Reality: The impending retirement of a generation of experienced mainframe experts is a primary challenge facing IT organizations. However, vendors are responding to this challenge by developing mainframe management solutions that are highly intuitive and that provide the intelligent automation necessary to empower a new generation of IT personnel to keep mainframes performing optimally. These solutions are also designed to help IT staffs manage their mainframes as part of the broader heterogeneous enterprise computing environment. This enables IT services to be managed on an end-to-end basis, rather than as separate platform "stovepipes."

Vendors are also working with channel partners to deliver mainframe management solutions in the form of turnkey services, thereby relieving IT organizations of the need to acquire and retain "under-the-hood" mainframe skills in-house. This enables companies to take full advantage of the value that today's mainframes offer -- without having to step outside their core competencies.

The Final Word

Clearly, all seven of these mainframe myths are blatantly false. The mainframe remains indispensable in the context of today's enterprise computing challenges -- delivering reliable, scalable, and secure services with minimum cost and maximum efficiency. IT decision-makers who see past these myths will be much better equipped to fulfill their companies' needs -- and outsmart competitors who fail to grasp the mainframe's true value.


1. The Mainframe Softwrae Market, Robin BloorHurwitz & Associates for CA, 20062. Top 15 Reasons Users Should Stay On/Upgrade/Move on to the IBM Mainframe, White Paper, First Edition, December, 2006

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Chris O'Malley is executive vice president and general manager of the Mainframe Business Unit at CA.

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