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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mainframe Computers That Change With the Times

Even in computer hardware, everything old is new again.

I.B.M. on Tuesday formally launched its latest mainframe computer, a type of machine that has been around for 49 years, and has endured through minicomputers, microcomputers, personal computers, computer servers, and lots else.

While the mainframe may be an enduring stalwart, the changes that come in this machine show how much the world has changed too, and probably not in a way that I.B.M. likes.

Most notably, the new machine, with the attractive name zEnterprise BC12, costs $75,000. That is a price cut of about 25 percent from the last model in this series of mainframes. To add more perspective, 10 years ago, before the zEnterprise series was around, Big Blue proudly launched a model called the Z990, or T-Rex, that started at $1 million. Prices went way up from there.

One could argue that this is a classic case of Moore’s Law making computing inexorably cheaper, but that isn’t how this market worked before. Mainframes got bigger and more powerful for decades, using the advances in semiconductors to make even more powerful and more expensive models. The past decade’s onslaught of cheap computer servers lashed together with virtualization and cloud software, however, made them formidable competitors for the work of mainframes. I.B.M. has had to respond by making the machines significantly cheaper.

This can be a strength for the product, or at least it can be made to look like one. I.B.M. says this low-priced machine still gives that mainframe security and reliability, and could eventually challenge the kind of server-based cloud computing models that have changed I.B.M.’s world.

“You can put the equivalent of 520 servers” into the BC12, said Patrick Toole, general manager of the product. “Mainframes are enduring because they enable clients to consolidate computing into single machines.”

“We’re more tidy” didn’t used to be a sales point. But then, we didn’t used to have data centers with 100,000 servers in them, either.

Mr. Toole said the machines were particularly targeted at banking and telecommunications companies for functions like Big Data analytics and modeling retail sales programs. The hope is to install the products in emerging markets, where there aren’t as many server-based clouds. Since the zEnterprise line was introduced in 2010, he said, about 40 percent of the computers have gone to countries like China, South Africa, and nations of the Middle East.

There are fewer secure, wired local networks and more wireless transactions in these places, Mr. Toole said. “The workloads in emerging economies fits our computer architecture,” he said. “There are people on mobile phones creating a million transactions a day.”

I.B.M. may be retooling the mainframe for a new world of expanding clouds and emerging markets, but some things may not be changing. Once I.B.M. gets a mainframe customer, it can lock in a lot more software and services that can still mean profitability.

“Mainframes are still a rich revenue stream, and a potentially captive market,” said Jeffrey Hewitt, an analyst at Gartner. “There is maintenance, software, consulting. Mainframe applications aren’t portable to other kinds of machines. Information technology people are basically risk-averse, and if you can sell them something that works, they’ll wonder why they should ever get rid of it.”

All you have to do is get that first $75,000 machine through the door.