Big Iron: The Cost-Cutting Platform

Mainframe shops continue to look to Big Iron for increased operational efficiency and lower costs.

A recent mainframe market survey from BMC Software Corp. shows that Big Iron is thriving -- with growth and retention levels at a three-year high. Moreover, BMC reports, a majority of mainframe shops are looking to Big Iron -- traditionally viewed as a costly platform -- to help boost operational efficiency and spearhead cost-cutting efforts.

Customers seem more excited about Big Iron than ever, according to BMC. In fact, optimism about the mainframe and about mainframe futures jumped appreciably this year, with nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents now signaling a strong belief that "the platform will continue to grow and attract new workloads," Compared to just over half (52 percent), in 2007.

In addition, BMC finds a "marked improvement" in mainframe staying power -- i.e., fewer defections from Big Iron -- accompanied by a "lessening of concern" with respect to mainframe skill replacement that could be a result of IBM Corp.'s efforts to recruit and groom a new generation of mainframe pros, via zNextGen and other initiatives. BMC concedes that the "absolute level" of concern about mainframe skills remains undiminished.

Why are mainframe shops so optimistic? For many reasons: customers cite a quartet of factors -- viz., "Availability," "Superior Centralized Data Serving," "Transaction Throughput," and "Security" -- as the main reasons they're staying with Big Iron.

In addition, Big Iron seems to have completed an image makeover of sorts. For many shops, the mainframe isn't the cost center it once was. Software spending is still the most costly aspect of mainframe ownership, accounting for about 40 percent of overall Big Iron expenditures on average. This isn't the cost burden it might appear to be at first glance, according to BMC. Instead, high mainframe software costs actually reflect a "high degree of automation in the management of many mainframe environments and contrasts sharply with general IT operations, where labor is the dominant expense."

This is one reason why mainframe units typically cite much lower labor costs than their distributed counterparts, BMC says.

That's not all. Owing to a range of different innovations (such as sub-capacity pricing, the preponderance of specialty processor engines, and the development of bigger, faster mainframe hardware), Big Iron software is typically more affordable than it was a decade ago. Helping offset software costs are several factors, including the mainframe's density; its integrated power and cooling feature set; its topological centrality (as the site of so many existing mission-critical applications or data sources, and as the locus of many business service optimization efforts); and the demonstrable strength of its virtualization facility.

The upshot, industry watchers claim, is that Big Iron is increasingly viewed as a cost-cutting platform par excellence.

"There is a very active market eager to leverage the unique capabilities of the mainframe for business success," said industry veteran Richard Ptak, managing partner with Ptak, Noel & Associates, in a statement. "[A]s the proportion of spending is weighted more towards software versus labor and hardware, this shows that mainframe users can focus on getting maximum benefit from platform applications rather than routine support and maintenance tasks."

That's just what they appear to be doing, says BMC, inasmuch as many respondents are pursuing service optimization and efficiency improvement efforts that emphasize or center around their mainframe assets. "As customers continue to invest in the mainframe, they reported that continued cost reductions and productivity improvement will remain at the top of their operational agenda as they work to automate IT across the business to minimize human error, improve compliance and deliver services faster," according to a BMC statement.

Elsewhere, some of the issues respondents say most concern them -- e.g., reduced maintenance windows, increasing availability requirements, and creeping regulatory compliance -- play to demonstrable mainframe strengths. The same is true for energy consumption, which is of enormous concern to large shops. An overwhelming majority (87 percent) of big mainframe shops say they're worried about rising energy costs, compared to just over half (51 percent) of small shops.

BMC's survey, which is based on feedback from 1,100 respondents (three-quarters of whom are BMC customers; one-quarter of whom were culled from z/Journal), doesn't stem from any strictly altruistic impulse on its part.

In fact, some of the survey's conclusions -- namely, that an increasing number of customers are running shared mainframe and distributed environments and that most of these customers believe that having shared tools and applications that span both platforms is very desirable -- dovetail nicely with its own practice areas, both in overall business service management (BSM) as well as service desk, change management, and IT service management.

Call it a win-win for both the mainframe and for BMC. "This survey further confirms that the mainframe plays a critical role in delivering key business services and that cross-enterprise integration is the crux of a successful business service management initiative," said Bill Miller, senior vice president and general manager of BMC's Mainframe Service Management unit, in a statement.