IBM Encourages Customers to Bring BI Back Home -- to the Mainframe

IBM is pursuing a number of pricing stratagems to help reverse the exodus of BI and DW workloads from its venerable System z mainframe platform.

As many a grey-haired IT pro will tell you, the mainframe isn’t dead. In fact—and if recent market research is a reliable indicator—the mainframe has experienced a comeback of sorts: Big Time. Mainframe revenues are up, mainframe processing capacity (measured in MIPS) is at an all-time high, and IBM Corp. is pursuing a number of pricing stratagems designed to make the mainframe a more affordable proposition on both the hardware and software tips.

One such stratagem is Big Blue’s zSeries Integrated Information Processor, or zIIP. In essence, zIIP is a software license (think of it as a dispensation) that lets customers host data-intensive workloads—often (or ideally) associated with business intelligence (BI) or data warehousing (DW) scenarios—on z/OS at a substantially reduced cost. It’s part of an effort on IBM’s end to not only reverse the exodus of mainframe data and mainframe workloads to distributed environments, but—more ambitiously—to recast the System z mainframe as an affordable and highly scalable alternative to distributed Windows, Unix, and Linux systems for BI and DW information processing.

According to IBM officials, zIIPs were conceived with four primary scenarios in mind: remote JDBC and ODBC access to DB2 on z/OS (with the exception of DB2 stored procedures); BI queries in general, with a particular emphasis on star schema; parallel query processing; and DB2 utilities processing.

“A lot of these [applications] moved [off the mainframe] in the first place because there was this perception that it was too costly to host them there,” said Jim Stallings, general manager of IBM’s System z mainframe division, in an interview last summer. “So the thinking was to give [customers] an incentive to redeploy [to the mainframe], so they can take advantage of its world-class processing power, reliability, security, and manageability.”

A lot of enterprise data is still stored in mainframe DB2, IMS, VSAM, Adabase, and other repositories, too, Stallings says. That gives customers another incentive to bring BI and DW applications back home to Big Iron, he argues.

It should, anyway. After all, that’s precisely the kind of scenario zIIP was designed to facilitate. It’s been slow going on the mainframe BI revival tip, however. Nearly a year after Big Blue first introduced zIIP, officials aren’t yet ready to publicly discuss zIIP reference customers. IBM says the relatively slow zIIP adoption curve is of a piece with the very conservative adoption and deployment practices of mainframe shops.

“I would classify it as interest right now. I’d like to say there were more active projects than I have seen, and there are some active projects happening [now],” says Randy Daniel, director of System z marketing execution with IBM. “A lot of [potential customers] are still exploring what it means for their environment, how can they leverage zIIPs. We’ve seen interest from BI ISVs, too.”

Daniel compares zIIP uptake to that of another mainframe specialty engine, Big Blue’s Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), which—following its late-2000 debut—had a comparatively slow adoption pattern, at least relative to other mainframe processor engines, such as IBM’s red hot zSeries Application Assist Processor (zAAP), which gives customers a low-cost means to host WebSphere J2EE workloads on z/OS. “We’re in the beginning stages. zIIP has been out for nine months, people are starting to understand its implications. The interest is there. It’s picking up. We’re working with several customers in that area. Obviously, we didn’t get to this point—with folks moving BI off the mainframe—over night, so it’s unrealistic to expect it to change overnight,” he contends.

There’s no doubt that long-time customers are reconsidering the role of the mainframe in their application and data hosting strategies. This used to result in a lose/lose for Big Iron, but—thanks to the ongoing mainframe revival – the mainframe is actually winning back some workloads. (http://esj.com/enterprise/article.aspx?EditorialsID=1312)

Anecdotal evidence abounds. Ken Hausman, data integration product marketing manager with SAS Institute Inc., says his company—which, after all, started out on the mainframe 30 years ago—still does a great deal of Big Iron business. More to the point, Hausman says, IBM’s mainframe revival—and, especially, its emphasis on mainframe Linux—has helped spark new interest in Big Iron application and data access solutions. Many large mainframe shops—particularly federal customers, as well as customers in other public sector industries—never moved data off the mainframe in the first place. Hausman doesn’t speak directly to the success of zIIP, but he does cite strong interest in mainframe Linux.

Other ETL purveyors confirm that they aren’t yet seeing much of a zIIP-related uptick in their mainframe ETL businesses, either.

“We have seen a lot of interest in the zLinux offering that’s following IBM’s push,” says Don Tirsell, senior director of product marketing with Informatica Corp. Informatica markets a pair of mainframe data access offerings—its flagship PowerCenter ETL tool, for starters, and its PowerExchange mainframe data access gateway. (Which it acquired from the former Striva several years ago.) “There are people who want to be mainframe-centric that want to feed their other applications, and [thanks to zIIP] MIPS cost is not as big an issue as it is with some other shops, but the biggest [driver] we’re seeing is interest in zLinux.”

That being said, Tirsell indicates, zLinux-related ETL adoption is a not-insignificant revenue generator for Informatica. “Folks that are taking Linux on the mainframe very seriously, they’re looking at our grid capabilities to deploy a grid on the mainframe. You don’t have to have all these boxes everywhere; you can have a mainframe be a big cabinet, and you can have a grid [in that cabinet]. That’s very attractive,” he comments.

Tirsell, like IBM’s Daniel, offers a pragmatic take on zIIP adoption and zIIP-related ETL. “This isn’t something [customers are] going to get into overnight,” he comments. “The flip side is that a large number of prospects still want to migrate off the mainframe. We’ve partnered with Microsoft in their mainframe offload [effort], Sybase is another [vendor that] we’ve partnered with. EDS has a mainframe application modernization practice and they’re using our technology. It took a long time for [customers] to get to this point, and it’ll take a while for them to come around” to bringing information back to the mainframe, Tirsell indicates.

That’s the crux of the matter, says IBM’s Daniel. With zIIP, Big Blue is trying to push a new vision—that of a mainframe-centered information Utopia—instead of (as was the case with zAAP) meeting pent-up customer demand.

The zIIP value proposition is compelling, Daniel asserts, and—once mainframe shops understand the manner in which it can impact their environments—could be potentially transformative. “I think what you’ll see … is that the adoption curve is going to be significantly steeper because [zIIP] can actually give our customers an advantage on existing workloads—and that’s something of a departure from our normal practice,” he concludes.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.