IBM aims to boost mainframe sales with simplified management

Five-year plan, backed by $100 million, would ease adminstration and development, deployment of software

IBM is embarking on a five-year campaign to promote mainframe computers by making the systems easier to configure and operate, and to promote them as an alternative to server network computing.

IBM is investing $100 million to enable information technology administrators to manage mainframes in enterprises and help programmers to more easily automate the process of developing and deploying software to run on mainframes, the company said Wednesday.

"This is the first step in a five-year journey to make the mainframe easier to use," said Bob Hoey, worldwide vice president of sales for IBM's System z mainframes.

Some large enterprises with networks of 30-50 servers are potential candidates for migration to an entry-level mainframe system, Hoey said, although enterprises with fewer than 30 servers may not be.

Still, a lot of IT managers may be intimidated by the complexity of operating a mainframe even though it has advantages over server network architecture, he said.

Among the features IBM will add to its mainframe capabilities: Automated configuration checking for system administrators to predict and avoid technical problems; improved software asset management; and a simplified user interface for network configuration and management designed with "existing IT staff and the new generation of IT workers in mind," IBM said.

Making the mainframe more approachable to a new generation of programmers makes sense to Vernon Turner, an IDC analyst.

"Kids today coming out of college who grew up enjoying a different look and feel when they are programming and when they are trying to get their systems up. At least this look and feel is something they are familiar with," Turner said of the user interface IBM is adding to its mainframe capabilities.

A mainframe could be a more efficient use of computing power than a server network, said IBM's Hoey.

Some Intel-powered servers may have utilization levels of as little as 5 percent to 15 percent and Unix-based servers just 15 percent to 25 percent, Hoey said, because some servers may be dedicated to running only one software application. But a mainframe that combines all of an enterprise's applications onto one computer can operate at 80 percent to 100 percent utilization.

"From a return-on-assets perspective, a mainframe does a better job of managing workload," he said.

Market research confirms mainframes remain a corporate staple. According to Gartner Inc., large mainframe users have been increasing their mainframe environments -- measured in MIPS (millions of instructions per second) -- steadily over the past four years. Most of these users will continue to increase their installed MIPS at a compound annual growth rate of 15 percent to 20 percent through 2009, Gartner estimates.

IDC reports the mainframe continues to hold its ground against competing platforms. Support for new Linux and Java workloads, for instance, will help drive MIPS shipments up 14.2 percent in 2006 and 9.2 percent next year, the research firm reports. In the big picture, however, IDC expects mainframe spending to drop to 6.2 percent ($3.9 billion) of overall server spending in 2010, from 8.9 percent ($4.9 billion) in 2005.

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