The Return of the Mainframe?

Dennis Faas's picture

The mainframe computer, thought by many to be the equivalent of a "cyber-dinosaur", is not extinct yet. IBM is introducing a new one, the IBM Z10, a far faster computer with a much larger capacity than any of its IBM predecessors. According to IBM, the mainframe computer heralds a big step forward in high-performance, energy-efficient computing. (Source:

At one time, PC manufacturers were quick to compare the performance of individual PCs, or clusters of PCs, to mainframes. The idea was that mainframes were big and expensive while PCs were small, and inexpensive. Now, IBM has turned the tables by comparing its new mainframe to PCs. It claims that the Z10 will provide the computing equivalent of 1,500 standard servers while consuming 85% less power, and requiring 85% less floor space. The price tag for mainframes, however, still remains high: $1 million or more. Nonetheless, IBM's James Stalling, General Manager of the System Z division, is reported to have claimed that "market economics are moving in our direction, and we're seeing the return of the mainframe."

The chief difference between a mainframe and a PC is 'virtualization'. For decades, mainframes have offered the ability to have one machine do the job of multiple computers. Mainframes are more efficient and sport utilization rates of more than 80%. PC-based servers, on the other hand, generally have utilization rates around 15%. The new IBM mainframe is positioned as a corporate supercomputer that will run Linux, web-based programs, data mining processes, and business intelligence systems. The benefits of virtualization can be exemplified by the mainframes in use at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio. Two mainframes run 1,300 programs on 480 virtual computers. The company estimates its savings in energy, administration and support costs to be more than $15 million.

To some extent, the revival of the mainframe is a result of Linux's own virtual machine underpinnings which have been available on mainframes for some time. Both IBM and Novell provide mainframe Linux offerings. (Source:

Still, IBM competitors are reluctant to acknowledge the benefits of mainframe computing. Last year, Microsoft's Mainframe Migration Alliance says it tracked 85 projects to migrate away from mainframes to PC-based platforms. Also, new virtualization software is emerging to increase the utilization rates of PC-based servers. Companies like VMware claim to offer 85% utilization rates now. This could diminish one of the primary benefits of mainframe computing.

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