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IBM partners see light in midrange mainframe market

Interest in Linux for critical applications is a driving force behind the acceptance of the IBM z10 BC midrange mainframe.

Six months into IBM's release of its latest "midrange" mainframe, interest is strong, and Big Blue partners have reported robust sales, despite a tough economy.

That says a lot, considering a bare-bones IBM z10 Business Class (or BC) machine can go for $85,000, according to IBM. The bulk of the machines sell for more, typically up to $250,000 and, in some cases, much more than that. (One IBM partner snorted upon hearing the IBM-touted $85,000 figure. "The one we're using is more like $1.2 million -- but whatever.")

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Windows on a mainframe?

Rick Bailer, the senior vice president of sales for System z at Sirius Computer Solutions, said he sees a lot of momentum for the z10 BC, especially among customers that want to consolidate many Linux servers and workloads. "We had a strong fourth quarter, saw a lot of interest and moved a fair amount of z10 BCs, and we're seeing that continue," Bailer told

Sirius isn't the only IBM partner seeing a mainframe-fueled opportunity. "We shipped over 30 units through December," said Doug Harrell, vice president of System Z's sales for Mainline Information Systems Inc. The new midrange machines hit the market in October 2008.

At the launch, IBM pitched the machines not only as replacements to the previous System z BC lineup, but as direct competitors to high-end Hewlett-Packard Co. ProLiant and Integrity servers running Windows Server and Unix.

So far, most of the new sales appear to be going into existing IBM shops, although Bailer said some of Sirius customers are new to mainframes if not new to IBM itself. Bailer sees some interest from HP accounts, "although never enough," and has sealed one deal to move an HP customer over.

Linux, server consolidation and replacement of aging machines
One driving factor is the increasing acceptance of Linux as a mission-critical operating system for big, important work loads. The BC running Z Linux is great for traditional workloads but also is able to expand to do newer workloads without a huge incremental cost. "Some customers were non Z customers who see the advantages in consolidating Intel or Unix servers. They can save on software licenses and, in a lot of cases, manageability," Bailer said.

IT shops can add additional processors called IFLs (i.e., Integrated Facility for Linux) to run specialized workloads. IFLs can be added and turned on without additional software charges, IBM partners said.

Tom Amodio, president of Vicom Infinity, another IBM partner, said the economy has had an impact on mainframe sales, but sees that as more of a hiccup than a huge bump in the road. He does see the new midrange mainframe bringing new customer business with the midrange boxes, including two new SAP projects for his company. And he has seen one outright migration from another hardware vendor, which he declined to name.

Vicom's new BC customers are consolidating servers and are trying to take advantage of what he calls "mainframe resiliency." Most of these companies have a server consolidation strategy and some are moving up that chain to mainframes for select applications that have real, quality-of-service requirements."

Harrell also sees some mainframes replacing Unix servers in server consolidation moves. He said the mainframe actually saves in energy consumption, footprint and space utilization compared with the Intel and Unix servers it replaces. "This really is a greener alternative," he said.

Still, it is probably true that many of these z10 BC sales have machines replacing older -- and pricier -- IBM mainframes or even moving from other IBM servers. IBM receives about a quarter of its annual revenue from mainframe related sales and service.

As HP and other hardware competitors keep upping the ante on their own high-end servers, it's unclear whether IBM will win any new partners with the z10 BC or whether it even wants to.

Whatever the case, things are getting very interesting in the high-end hardware market. Word leaked last week that IBM is weighing an acquisition of Sun Microsystems. Sun is one of the few big-iron rivals left, and it is clear that others in tech will oppose any merger, calling it anti-competitive.

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