A new survey of datacenter users predicts a sharp drop in mainframe usage, though some industry analysts say the results seem unlikely.
The survey was carried out by Afcom, one of the best-known groups representing datacenter workers. Afcom asked about a range of topics and got responses from 436 datacenters, mostly commercial facilities in the U.S. but including some government and university sites, as well as several dozen datacenters overseas.
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Forty percent of the datacenters surveyed said they still operate mainframes today, and the median number of mainframes at those facilities is two. Of those using mainframes, 46 percent, or almost half, said they're considering replacing one or more of them in the next two years.
About two-thirds expect to replace them with a new mainframe. The part that looks bleak for mainframe vendors is that the rest (32.9 percent) said they would replace the mainframe with a different type of high-end system, presumably a Unix server or other resilient type of system.
Afcom also found that of the datacenters not using mainframes today, 38 percent said they did have a mainframe 10 years ago, and just over a quarter -- 27 percent -- had one five years ago.
Predicting the mainframe's demise has been a popular sport in the IT industry, especially with the emergence of more powerful and reliable Unix servers during the 1990s. Most of the predictions turned out to be exaggerated or wrong.
"Does the mainframe decline in the long run? Yeah, probably, but one of the big surprises of the last 10 years to most people outside of IBM is how strong the mainframe has remained," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.
"The numbers in this survey strike me as unbelievably high," he said. "To have almost half of datacenters saying they'll replace one or more of their mainframes over the next two years, that's a strikingly high number. High-end systems in general don't turn over that quickly."
Analyst Dan Olds of Gabriel Consulting agreed. "To find that almost half the sample plans to replace their mainframe in the next year or two just doesn't seem to jibe with reality," he said.
For sure, mainframe sales have been hurt by the recession. IBM, the biggest seller of mainframes, said revenue from its System z line dropped 26 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier. But a spokeswoman said its System z revenue has increased in eight out of the past 14 quarters, and that it jumped 34 percent in the second quarter last year after the introduction of the new System z10.
"A longer-term view shows that client demand for System z remains strong," she said.
The survey results may have been affected by who answered the questions, Haff suggested. "Someone could have said, 'Oh yeah, we have a mainframe over there that's likely to be replaced soon,' but it doesn't mean they're necessarily qualified to answer the question," he said.
Other results in the survey suggest a need for tighter security against cyber terrorism, Afcom said, noting publicized attacks in recent years against government Web sites in the U.S., Australia, Estonia, Romania, Georgia, and elsewhere.