The head of IBM's mainframe group is looking to bring mobile and social workloads into the platform in another move that would help the mainframe stay relevant and fend off competition from lower-cost systems.
The mainframe has confounded predictions that it would go the way of the dodo, partly because IBM keeps adding capabilities to modernise it and widen its appeal. But it's still a costly system for which IBM needs to justify customers' continued investment.
In the past, the company has added specialty chips for running workloads such as Java and Linux; allowed users to manage their Power and x86 servers from their mainframe console, and introduced smaller, "business class" machines to attract new customers.
They're all moves to help the mainframe compete against lower-cost systems, such as Unix and even x86 servers, which have gained more reliability and security features over time.
z Enterprise EC12 mainframe
Among the next steps IBM is considering is making it easier for customers to run some of their mobile and even social networking applications on the mainframe, said Doug Balog, general manager of IBM's System z mainframe business.
"I see there's a trend in the market we haven't directly connected to z yet, and that's this mobile-social platform," he said.
Mainframes are used by big companies such as banks and telcos that are willing to pay a premium for maximum security and uptime, but to deploy mobile and social applications, those firms often turn to other platforms better suited to their development.
But if a bank, for example, wants to offer its customers a mobile banking app, it would prefer to have the resilience of a mainframe behind it, said Balog, who uses the term "social-mobile" as if it were a single workload, because he sees them as closely aligned.
"I'm still trying to figure out where social-mobile come together on z. There's clearly a play there, and we've got to do some more work around that," he said. He's still deciding the best way to do it, but one option is to bring more of IBM's WebSphere application server software onto IBM's z systems.
"Clearly WebSphere runs on the mainframe already for transaction processing, but I bet there's more of that platform that probably, based on this need for resiliency, should run there," he said.
Another option is providing tools and services to make it easier for customers to port existing mobile and social apps to the mainframe.
Dealing with mobile devices and related security concerns is top of mind for businesses, so it makes sense if IBM wants to tackle that area, said IDC analyst Jean Bozman.
However, providing mobile access to data in a mainframe presents an inherent quandary. "It's a platform that you want to be highly secure, yet you also want to provide access to it, and a lot of that work will be done through software," she said.
In the nearer term, Balog sees "operational analytics" as a big driver of mainframe usage. That involves analysing transaction data as it comes into the system, nearly in real time, for tasks such as fraud detection.
"I predict that in a couple of years almost every one of our clients will be doing this," he said.
Operational analytics can help determine if a person using a bank's cash machine is the rightful holder of the bank card, by looking at other data, such as where they made recent purchases, Balog said.
That's distinct from more traditional analytics, Bozman said. "If you're looking at transactions after the fact, that's analytics. If you're looking at transactions while you're actually doing business with the customer, that's operational analytics," she said.
Netezza data warehouse
It can also help to identify up-sell opportunities when a customer makes a purchase from a travel website, by looking at past behaviour, Balog said.
"Bringing analytics into the transaction flow, I think, is the next big thing. It's almost as big as moving from batch processing to transaction processing," he said.
Customers would need to invest in one of IBM's Netezza data warehouse systems, which it has been integrating more tightly with its mainframes. Balog contends that's a better solution for operational analytics than the Hadoop Big Data platform, which is more suited to historical data.
Last quarter was a big one for IBM's mainframe business, with the launch of its EC12 system pushing sales 56% higher. It's a cyclical business, though, and the previous six quarters all saw declines in mainframe sales, after big gains in the first half of 2011.
Averaged out, Balog said IBM's mainframe business has had "three years of compound growth."
It has added about 180 mainframe customers in the past two years, he said, with China leading the way. The booming middle class there means more people are using banking and telecommunications services, requiring more computing power.