Big Blue Gobbles up Plug-Compatible Mainframe Competitor

Expect PSI's technology to pop up elsewhere -- perhaps in a low-end POWER-based mainframe

Ever since it first appeared in late 2006, Platform Solutions Inc. (PSI) has been a thorn in IBM Corp.'s side (see

Much was at stake: PSI marketed a line of plug-compatible mainframe (PCM) systems that officials claimed were as reliable, available, and scalable as Big Blue's dedicated Big Iron systems. Messaging of that kind was bound to draw IBM's attention. That's why PSI's acquisition earlier this month -- by Big Blue -- seems both long-overdue and bittersweet.

Many mainframe (or would-be mainframe) shops, starved for affordable Big Iron alternatives -- particularly PCMs -- were at least somewhat interested in PSI. For a while -- after Big Blue abruptly withdrew its support for FLEX-ES (a PCM system developed by Fundamental Software Inc.) -- PSI was the only game in town. Some people argue that PSI's go-to-market strategy was what caused IBM to pull the plug on FLEX-ES in the first place (see

PSI, which builds its PCM systems on top of hardware from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), certainly irritated IBM. It promised users a PCM system that supported a 64-bit address space, a concession that IBM had stubbornly refused to make for FLEX-ES. It also touted a heterogeneous value proposition that, officials claim, outstrips that of even System z.

The IBM mainframe, after all, lets users run any of several operating environments (such as VSE and Linux) in addition to z/OS.

PSI pushed its PCM systems as mainframe replacements as well as replacements for distributed Unix, Linux, and Windows systems. Talk about having all of one's bases covered: at its official coming out party last August, PSI demoed both z/OS and Windows Server 2008 running concurrently on one of its System64 platforms. "No other mainframe provider can deliver these [heterogeneous virtualization] capabilities to allow maximum flexibility and choice to meet tomorrow's challenges," said president and CEO Michael Maulick.

For 20 months, IBM and PSI fought in court, filing suit and countersuit, motion and countermotion. Then, earlier this month, IBM announced the acquisition of PSI, its technologies, and its intellectual property. These assets, along with PSI's employees, are slated to be subsumed by the System z unit of Big Blue's Systems and Technology Group.

IBM and PSI aren't talking about the details. Financial terms weren't disclosed -- so it's impossible to determine whether Big Blue spent a considerable amount of cash to avoid an embarrassing legal contretemps or simply to rid itself of a particularly pesky competitor. Nevertheless, industry veteran John Phelps, Gartner Inc.'s savvy mainframe analyst, has some ideas.

First, how credible were PSI's claims of mainframe-like reliability, scalability, and availability? Pretty darn compelling, if not completely credible, according to Phelps -- just so long as PSI, its partners, and their customers were willing to risk running afoul of IBM's licensing terms.

"PSI's System64 Server in theory provided IBM mainframe customers with an alternative for less-expensive hardware. PSI claimed the server was compatible with IBM z/OS, z/Linux, and associated independent software vendor and customer applications," Phelps indicates, "but IBM refused to license z/OS on the PSI system. In 2006, IBM sued PSI for alleged patent violations. PSI later countersued, claiming antitrust violations on IBM's part. PSI already had few large or well-known users, and the litigation with IBM further helped to dissuade many organizations from adopting its offerings. Nevertheless, PSI established relationships with T3 Technologies, NEC, and HP."

The acquisition should clear up things on the legal front and help keep competitor HP at bay, Phelps continues. "Although it is unclear which way legal proceedings would have gone, this move has provided a more expedient and possibly a cheaper solution for IBM," he says. "A win by PSI would have benefited HP in particular, as it is the largest advocate of Itanium and would have been able to offer HP/UX, Linux, Windows and z/OS on the same system using Integrity Virtual Machine. IBM's move will prevent this potential scenario."

Another PSI hardware partner, T3, seems disinclined to acquiesce, according to Phelps and Gartner.

"T3 -- which had filed suit in conjunction with the PSI suit -- [will] continue its litigation, possibly through courts in the European Union, which have a history of championing anticompetitive suits," he indicates. What, then, will become of PSI's technology? It'll probably crop up, Phelps predicts -- particularly in a distributed or open systems space that isn't quite as virtualized as System z.

"IBM claims the purchase was motivated by its need to bring in new technology ideas to the System z development team. As IBM looks toward the coming world of virtualization in a heterogeneous environment, it will likely find value in technology that PSI has under development, especially in the area of virtualization of I/O across heterogeneous platforms," he concludes. "IBM does not intend to promote Itanium mainframe systems but could use PSI's engineering knowledge to develop a low-end Power-based mainframe offering."

About the Author

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