Emulation Licensing Problems Put FLEX-ES Shops in Limbo

Even as IBM and Fundamental continue to wrangle, FLEX-ES shops are dwelling in a kind of limbo. First in a series.

Late last year, IBM Corp. and emulation specialist Fundamental Software Inc. (FSI), developer of a line of relatively inexpensive mainframe emulation systems, appeared to reach something of an impasse.

For several years, FSI had sold its FLEX-ES systems—mainframe emulation products powered by commodity Intel-based servers—more or less with Big Blue’s blessing. There were a couple of sticking points, of course. First, Big Blue has been ambivalent about endorsing the use of FLEX-ES for 64-bit applications. Second, IBM seemed to get more gung-ho about FLEX-ES after FSI ditched its Compaq and Dell hardware in favor of Big Blue’s xSeries line.

For the most part, however, IBM and FSI had an agreeable (if somewhat co-opetitive) arrangement, principally through Big Blue’s PartnerWorld for Developers (PWD) network. Late last year, that changed. At about the same time Big Blue sued another mainframe emulation specialist (Platform Solutions Inc.—PSI) for patent infringement, FSI’s two biggest resellers—Cornerstone Systems and T3 Technologies—informed customers that IBM and FSI were at an impasse with respect to the extension of their existing licensing agreement, which concerns the use of several IBM patents (see (http://www.esj.com/Case_Study/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2327).

Officials from both companies are tight-lipped about what exactly is (or isn’t) happening. Neither IBM nor FSI has publicly commented on the apparent dissolution of their arrangement, and—even though IBM’s PartnerWorld Web site still features marketing collateral about FSI’s FLEX-ES systems—it also notes that "the FLEX-ES systems are not currently available."

Enterprise users of FLEX-ES have been curiously silent, too—with good reason, as it turns out: organizations looking for a way out of their FLEX-ES impasse have been encouraged by IBM to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA).

Consider mainframe veteran Kevin Kinney, a systems programmer with a financial services company who received his NDA offer just a few weeks ago. "The NDA allows IBM to tell us what is really going on. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to share any of that," Kinney acknowledges. Nor is Kinney alone. "I asked the FLEX news list for the IBM announcement letter stating their position on FLEX. There hasn’t been one. Instead, IBM is contacting each PWD member individually and having them sign an NDA in order to get more info regarding IBM’s position and—hopefully—the future of Flex," he says.

The problem, Kinney and other users stress, is that even as IBM and FSI continue (presumably, at least) to wrangle, FLEX-ES shops are dwelling in a kind of limbo—and a potentially expensive limbo at that, given the significant cost of replacement System z hardware and the disruptive impact on their development and testing practices, not to mention their long-term budgeting and planning schedules.

Kinney’s company, for example, has already had to revise its own budget forecast: "We are very severely impacted by IBM's decision. We spec’d out our FLEX box as a five-to-10 year machine. Now we're getting less than three years out of it. We also have to find another machine by December," he says.

Nor is that all. "Our parent organization has three other FLEX PWD boxes that have to be replaced by the end of [2008]. We're hoping we can merge these all into a single z9 box, but honestly don't expect it to happen."

For the most part, Kinney and other users don’t so much want a single throat to choke as straightforward, non-NDA-ified answers to their questions. In a legal climate in which IBM is suing—and being countersued by—at least one mainframe emulation player, that might be difficult. Absent an NDA, FLEX-ES users are left in the dark.

High Stakes

In a posting to the FLEX-ES listserve, Gary Blair, proprietor of Softbase Systems Inc., outlined what’s at stake for Softbase and other small FLEX-ES customers. In his case, Blair says, IBM’s knee-jerk response—namely, that customers should eighty-six their FLEX-ES systems in favor of System z hardware—simply isn’t viable.

"As far as IBM coming up with an alternative, they have—buy a z9 or sign up for their time-share service," Blair wrote. "If you are thinking about a z9, think again. From what I understand, … a 29 MIP z9, with about half theDASD I now have on my 40 MIP, $30,000 FLEX system, is going to cost somewhere between $125,000 and $150,000."

That’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, according to Blair. "In addition, I will have to run three-phase power into our office; I will probably have to install separate air conditioning, and neither the computer nor the air conditioning can be handled by our backup generator," he explained. "Did I mention that I will have to allocate another office/room to house the two refrigerator sized boxes that will not fit in our server room?"

As for the time share option, Blair says, it seems like a step backward for companies that have come to appreciate the "freedom, flexibility, and creativity of developing and testing software products" on their own boxes.

John Abell, a mainframe veteran with International Software Products (ISP), a specialty provider of software for CA’s IDMS database, says his company faces slightly less pressure than Kinney and some others. "We are an IBM PartnerWorld ISV developing mainframe software for specific markets and have a FLEX system with a license that does not expire until October 2008. Because this is more than a year out, we do not yet have the urgency of some of the FLEX sites. However, it is a concern," he indicates.

ISP does all of its development on FLEX-ES and does not have access to a "real" mainframe, Abell confirms. He’s optimistic IBM will come up with a solution of some kind before his organization faces a FLEX-ES support crunch, however.

"I have not had anything from IBM that I can make public other than I have been assured by IBM that they will have a resolution and/or long-term solutions that make sense economically for partners like us well before our FLEX license expires," he observes. "We are fine until 2008. If I take IBM's assurances, … then for now I am comfortable."

FLEX-ES isn’t an IBM product, of course. But one reason so many mainframe shops are looking to Big Blue to possibly bail them out is because they believe IBM sanctioned FLEX-ES in several capacities, most notably through its PWD tie-in. That’s how Abell and ISP first got involved with FLEX-ES. ""[I]t was the only viable option to z/OS support and it was sanctioned by IBM. That was [four-and-a-half] years ago," he notes. Abell demurs, to a degree, on the issue of IBM having "backtracked" with respect to its support for FLEX-ES.

"[T]his does appear to be the case at this time and certainly for those who have had the unfortunate experience of having their FLEX license expire and for those in immediate danger of the same circumstance." Then there’s the PartnerWorld connection, which FLEX-ES users say helped lend that product a patina of legitimacy—i.e., of being sanctioned, if not blessed, by Big Blue. That’s how Abell, for example, feels: "Since the FLEX system was available through PartnerWorld, we assumed no ambiguity. Maybe this was a bit naive."

There’s a lot more to unpack here—including IBM’s curious relationship with mainframe emulation. Next week, we’ll follow up with IBM and FSI for their reaction to this issue. We’ll also check in with other FLEX-ES users.