Amid Economic Turbulence, Mainframes Counter IT Cost-Cutting Trend

This year isn't like 1999, and Big Iron could be in an enviable position should things get even worse.

What's in store for mainframe pros this year? The good news, industry principals say, is that the bust of 2008-2009 is different from the dot.com implosion of nearly a decade ago. For one thing, the mainframe is now viewed less as a cost-center -- less of a big line-item drag on the enterprise bottom line -- and more as one of several platforms that power enterprise IT operations.

Furthermore, industry watchers say, IT organizations realize that their distributed assets -- aggregate costs were once widely distributed throughout the organization -- comprise a significant and growing portion of their IT spending.

This realization, coupled with IBM Corp.'s successful marketing of the mainframe's best-in-class power-and-cooling, security, manageability, and virtualization capabilities, will stand Big Iron well -- this time around.

Mark Combs, senior vice-president of CA's mainframe business unit, argues that Big Iron could conceivably be in an enviable position, should things take a turn for the worst.

"It's actually very different from the way it was a few years ago. One thing that has led to that is an increasing level of sophistication on the part of customers in terms of analyzing their costs internally. While the mainframe years ago was a big target because it was a big number, now customers have better visibility into their costs," Combs reports.

"As the trend toward treating [the mainframe] as a business function has sort of grown over the last couple of years, companies now have a better handle on how they're spending their money. They find now that the costs for distributed systems in terms of utilization, in terms of obsolescence costs -- there's a growing recognition that the mainframe is not a cost center but a cost-optimized platform."

One reason for this, Combs suggests, is that Big Iron management has, for more than a decade now immemorial (if not longer) emphasized managing the mainframe as a business. That's a perspective which managers in distributed environments are just now grasping.

"Maybe in 2001, when the economy was heading toward trouble, customers would look at it as 'My mainframe bill is my biggest bill and I'm going to have to cut it.' Now they look at it as, 'My mainframe bill is big, but if I look at my costs in aggregate, it's just a part. Maybe it makes sense to eliminate some of these other costs and reduce my heating costs, my power costs, my utilization costs,'" he says.

To be sure, challenges abound. The cost of managing the mainframe may compare favorably with the cost of managing a highly distributed environment, but it's inevitable that the core group of mainframe administrators (programmers and system operators) is aging. These professionals typically command higher salaries relative to freshly minted IT pros. That's one reason CA, IBM, and other Big Iron ISVs are focusing on developing more intuitive, streamlined mainframe management tools.

One upshot of this trend is that ISVs are emphasizing a kind of pan-platform management experience, with user-interface commonality and (to the degree possible) features and functionality common between and among platforms. That's one driver for CA's Enterprise IT Management strategy, an ongoing effort to standardize and reconcile management tooling between CA's mainframe, distributed, security, and other management products. To one degree or another, IBM, BMC Software Corp., and Compuware Corp. have announced similar initiatives, with a focus on ratcheting up pan-platform usability.

"The core of experienced professionals who are managing the mainframe today are very sophisticated and very knowledgeable, but they're also growing older. It's just the reality that over time, they're going to be needed to be replaced by a new generation of professionals who will be drawn from other parts of the industry. They won't have grown up in the environment, they won't be familiar with all of the legacy things that exist out there, so it's incumbent upon us to refresh our products, make them easier to manage, make them more intuitive to manage, and smarten up the products."

It's as big a challenge as the industry has faced in a decade, says Combs. With economic recession in the background, it certainly won't be easy. "I think it's a formidable challenge in that it's a lot of work. It is, however, probably the most important thing in a number of years. The last thing that comes to mind is everybody putting their shoulders to the wheels to make sure that they survive Y2K. Now we've got a sort of age-related Y2K coming. The customers absolutely want [us to respond to] it. They require it. Demand is there."