IBM vs. Microsoft: A Mainframe Battle?

Companies fire shots across each other's bow

It appears either Microsoft has mainframe-envy or IBM is not too happy about Microsoft's data-center ambitions of late. Most likely, it's a combination of both. Consider the following:

  • Microsoft recently said it is going to offer portable data centers based on its cloud-based Windows Azure platform
  • IBM just launched a new mainframe that is the first to support virtualization of x86-based blades with Linux, not Windows, as the preferred platform. Big Blue appears cold to the idea of the blade extensions supporting Windows
  • The European Union last week launched an investigation of IBM's mainframe business. IBM's response: Microsoft is behind the investigation

This made for a hot July for two companies that really have bigger fish to fry than each other. It is clear IBM is not happy with Microsoft these days, based on Big Blue's response to the EU investigation:

The accusations made against IBM by TurboHercules and T3 are being driven by some of IBM's largest competitors -- led by Microsoft -- who want to further cement the dominance of Wintel servers by attempting to mimic aspects of IBM mainframes without making the substantial investments IBM has made and continues to make. In doing so, they are violating IBM's intellectual property rights.

T3 and TurboHercules offer mainframe software that competes with IBM's own offerings.

As for the newly launched mainframe, the zEnterprise is the most important new piece of big iron launched by IBM in more than a decade because it is the first to provide integration with its Power7 blade infrastructure and x86-based blade racks running Linux.

Where it breaks new ground is its common virtualized platform capable of running 100,000 VMs simultaneously, while providing a turnkey data center that shares network, storage and power components. Providing the capability for the mainframe to assign workloads to x86-based blades is the system's Universal Resource Manager, made up of software and embedded hardware, said IBM Distinguished Engineer Donna Dillenberger, in an interview at the launch event.

Her colleague, David Gelardi, IBM's vice president of sales, support and education, told me one could opt to run Windows workloads rather than Linux on the x86 BladeCenter Extensions, dubbed zBX. "There's no reason you can't use it to run Windows, because Tivoli's provisioning capabilities is operating systems agnostic," he said. "Windows would run on an outboard blade and ultimately would run on an xBlade inside zBX."

At the same time, Steve Mills, senior vice president of IBM's software and hardware businesses, was in another room with analysts downplaying that notion. When asked if the blades would run Windows, Mills reportedly said that because they are x86-based, Windows could run on it "but the problem was essentially, to IBM, Windows was too much of a black box to be able to do what they wanted to do with it," recalled RedMonk analyst Michael Cote, in an interview.

"I don't think IBM is especially interested in managing Windows on the zEnterprise," Cote said. "Technologically it wouldn't work out, and they probably are unwilling to do whatever it would take to make Microsoft help them out with it. But I think in the wider context of things, IBM's not really out to help Microsoft out really."

Analyst Joe Clabby of Clabby Analytics, in an interview, explained it would require Microsoft to support IBM's virtualization technology and make tweaks to its own Hyper-V. "Hyper-V is nowhere near IBM from a virtualization and provisioning perspective," Clabby said. "If I were IBM, I'd say get that stuff out of the way, use this approach, and then you can integrate with our mainframes better, but I don't think that will be received well by Microsoft."

Both Cote and Clabby are in agreement that we shouldn't anticipate the new zEnterprise running Windows workloads -- at least with the help of Microsoft and IBM -- any time soon.

As for the EU investigation: "I don't know if IBM's allegations that Microsoft is behind it are true, but in this day and age, part of the way you compete is to try to help government agencies do antitrust stuff," Cote said. "Whether it's a good way of competing, it seems like one front in a war of competing."

Is Microsoft really a threat to IBM these days? Cote says certainly more so than it was in the past. "Microsoft wants to expand into the enterprise area," he said. "If you look at the numbers on Windows server usage, it's everywhere. That's a chunk of revenue that IBM is missing out on."

It's not just the data center where IBM is taking on Microsoft. IBM is also taking its best shot at breaking into the desktop with its new CloudBurst offerings and its free Microsoft Office alternative, Lotus Symphony.

Although the two companies both compete and partner in many areas, it does appear that the rivalry between them is picking up. "I don't think IBM as a culture has ever forgiven itself for creating Microsoft with DOS licensing and everything, but I see a bit more viciousness when it comes to IBMers talking about Microsoft people these days," Cote said.

All that said, he points out that IBM's true nemesis is Oracle. Microsoft has made it clear that its two biggest enemies are Apple and Google, with VMware and Oracle clearly in its path, as well. The tensions between IBM and Microsoft "are definitely more active but they're not at each other's throats," Cote said.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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