With enterprises demanding more functionality and availability from their computer systems, the line between servers and mainframes is becoming increasingly blurred. It begs the question: will the platforms become one and the same?
On one side we see Unisys teaming up with Microsoft to support Windows operating environments; on the other, IBM is showing mainframes can be integrated with Linux in ways that belie the proprietary nature of the platform. While servers are reaching the stage of imitating the mainframes they set out to replace, mainframe vendors are looking to capitalise on the maturity of the latter platform by offering cost-effective solutions that replace midrange servers.
The channel may well be the key to who wins this contest in the near future. Resellers' knowledge of their clients' businesses and infrastructures is becoming a prized commodity in this most competitive of markets.
"In the old days, the hardware vendor and customer employed someone specifically to develop their application," says Sun Microsystems' Robert Becker. "Now they buy the basic _platform from us and go to an _independent software vendor for the application and add services to install, _customise and connect. That is where the paradigm shift lies, because as a vendor we are not everything to _everyone.
"There is a huge value-add opportunity and there are very few such opportunities in the mainframe world."
Sun unashamedly admits its midrange servers are attempting to emulate the mainframes of old.
"The simple answer is yes' - servers are trying to imitate mainframe functionality," proclaims Sun's product sales manager for Australia, John Funnell. "We saw an opportunity to provide a system that was fast, inexpensive and ubiquitous. We had the Unix platform which is very stable and one of the key requirements for servers.
"There are a lot of newer companies that have popped up in the last five or six years - the telcos, finance companies and dot-coms - that started to think about servers instead of going the traditional way with mainframes," he says. "That led to a lot of applications and the subsequent snowballing effect away from mainframe systems. Traditional organisations started to catch on to stay competitive with the newer companies. It compounded on itself and once it got to that stage, customers began to want mainframe functionality on their servers."
Sun now offers functionality such as partitioning on its servers - an option which was previously limited to the domain of the mainframe. "It is a key function with huge potential for load balancing and reliability," says Funnell.
Mainframes still reign
Philip Sargeant, research director for servers and storage at Gartner, believes servers have a long way to go before they will offer the same availability as a mainframe platform.
"It boils down to the whole equation - the cost of the hardware, the software and the people to manage it," he explains. "The cost depends on what you are running within your business. The big banks and Telstra use mainframes because they are able to access their opportunities cost-effectively. For other businesses, Unix and NT come out on top. Unix has positioned itself in the Web world - there's been a lot of marketing and focus in that area. IBM is now trying to do the same but it is a bit behind the eight ball."
Sun's Becker admits the mainframe's reign is far from over. "The mainframe style of computing will be with us for sometime yet, but we will continue to move into that space by offering more cost-effective options."
He says the mainframe is so integral to organisations such as banks that it would take thousands of hours to move across to a server environment. "So the strategy is to surround the mainframe, but have next-generation applications loaded on midframe servers. Over the last six to 10 years there has been a lot of packaged software developed for the midframe that is a lot more portable."
But despite this "trend" towards midframe servers, IBM - the worldwide leader in the overall server market last year - is showing that mainframes need not be the expensive, inflexible platforms they are often perceived to be. Last year Big Blue and Scandinavian telecommunications company Telia announced they would deploy a combination of IBM mainframe and Shark storage technology running on Linux to host and run their business and consumer Internet services. Telia is replacing its 70 existing Web-hosting Unix servers with a single IBM S/390 G6 enterprise server, which will host more than 1500 virtual Internet Linux servers simultaneously.
"It allows us to rethink our total pricing structure for Internet services and to offer customers a more affordable Web application service than ever before," says CFO of TeliaNet, Henrik Wulff Riedl.
According to figures from Gartner's Dataquest, IBM led the Australian market for 2000 in terms of total server vendor revenue with 33 per cent market share. Sun and Compaq tussle for second - both at 23 per cent of the overall market. However, in terms of RISC server-based revenue, Sun leads with 44 per cent of revenue-based market share while IBM trails with 31 per cent.
"There are a lot of bigger non-IBM vendors aspiring to be mainframes," says Sargeant. "The one thing that differentiates the mainframe has been availability - the hardware, the operating system and the applications that go on top of that. The reality is that the mainframe today is still demonstrably more available than other platforms. There may be _some odd accounts that match that, but generally the mainframe is still number one."
Despite this availability, people still view mainframes as they were 20 years ago - big, ugly and expensive systems. The irony is that most of today's mainframes are smaller than many of their server counterpart systems.
"If you look at mainframes today, it is really the software which differentiates the operating system," he says. "It is extremely robust, very mature and provides a lot of the features and functionality of a server. The problem is people perceive the cost of the software as expensive, so they have deserted the system in preference to Unix and Windows."
Windows of opportunity
Unisys is one vendor taking advantage of the maturing Windows system. The company is currently looking at the concept of a Windows 2000 mainframe and has just released its ES7000 series, an Intel-based platform which supports Windows Server operating environments or UnixWare.
This new offering will have the attributes of a mainframe system, such as scalability, 24x7 availability with 99.9 per cent up-time, but also increased manageability.
"One of the trends we see is companies looking at opportunities for growing their businesses, but away from proprietary platforms such as Unix," says Unisys director of systems and technology Wendy Stubbs. She adds that another growing trend towards consolidation offers a lot of cost savings to users.
"Lots of companies are looking at standardising their systems on the Windows environment," she says. "If you look at the total cost of the ownership of servers today, it can be quite expensive. There is always that pressure for companies to cut costs and save money and the economic slowdown is definitely a period that will highlight that."
Gartner's Sargeant believes Windows will be a system to watch out for in a few year's time. "Unix is accepted more in the industry because at this stage, it_ is more stable and more mature. _But that won't be the case in the next two to three years because Windows is growing up."
Unisys e-@ction Enterprise Server ES7000Unisys has worked with Intel and Microsoft on the ES7000 to create an offering with the attributes of a mainframe system - scalability, 24x7 availability with 99.9 per cent up time - but also increased manageability.
According to Unisys, the system represents the first Intel processor-based system capable of supporting large scale, e-business and mission-critical applications. The server can be scaled from eight to 32 processors and the CPU upgrade path includes Intel's future IA-32 and IA-64 CPU sub-pods. The ES7000 can also be partitioned and supports Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition, Windows 2000 Advanced Server, Windows 2000 Datacentre Server and UnixWare 7.x operating environments.
Sun Fire midrange servers
Sun Microsystems recently announced its Sun Fire servers under the banner "availability is everything".
Sun hopes to increase the competitive pressure on HP, IBM and Compaq. The company has named its offerings "midframe" servers because they incorporate features from the traditional mainframe. The new servers are the cornerstone of Sun's systems, software and new availability environment; they will help customers take advantage of the economic benefits of the worldwide _build out of the Internet infrastructure, according _to SunThe Sun Fire servers incorporate redundant component interconnection technology, the ability to dynamically split one system into multiple systems, duplicate hardware components, and "on-the-fly" processor upgrades as standard features. Using the UltraSPARC III processor, Sun's third-generation 64-bit chip, the systems support the Solaris 8 operating environment.
The Sun Fire series is available now and prices start just under $165,000 (ex GST).
IBM e-server zSeries
An IBM zSeries mainframe, running the Linux open source operating system, and an IBM Enterprise Storage Server, was recently named Best Product at the 2001 Linux Business Expo in Sydney.
IBM demonstrated the system's ability to automatically create a new Linux instance' - the equivalent of creating a new standalone Linux server - every 90 seconds. After 11 hours the machine had 400 Linux instances running.
According to Elmer Corbin, Linux Business Strategist for IBM, this is significant because it demonstrates the speed and versatility of running Linux on an IBM mainframe.
"Thousands of virtual Linux servers can run simultaneously within one IBM zSeries mainframe server, making the server the ideal platform for e-business-intensive operations," he says.
Corbin believes that Linux is ready for real e-business, especially when combined with the new power of the IBM mainframe.