The ‘Myth’ of the Mainframe Cloud


OMGOMGFLUFFYPINKRAINBOWUNICORN!!! But is this more likely to exist than a mainframe cloud?

Recently I read an interesting piece by Quentin Hardy (@qhardy), the Deputy Tech Editor and The New York Times on IBM’s Big Plans for Cloud Computing. Featuring Lance Crosby (@lavosby), CEO and Founder of SoftLayer (recently acquired by IBM), it raised the always-expected but never-delivered notion of an IBM mainframe cloud.

Not surprisingly when such topics are mentioned, it also drew derision from some quarters who think the idea of a mainframe cloud is a fanciful myth.

This time around, the comment came from Dell’s Bernard Golden (@bernardgolden):

I quote this not to pick on Bernard – he is a smart guy whose opinions I frequently respect and learn from – but rather just to show that this is a very common view even among the most educated pundits in the market.

I am not going to talk about the customers I know that have built, or are building, private clouds on mainframe IFLs – the Integrated Facility for Linux processors that are a core part of the System z architecture. Mainframe cloud has been on enterprise plans for years, so this is just old news.

And yes, they are ‘true cloud’ (eyeroll), with on-demand self-service; broad network access; resource pooling; rapid elasticity; and as a measured service. Not that definitional exactitude is important to the business value their mainframe clouds are delivering.

Even beyond this current reality, there is any amount of evidence to suggest IBM in particular has a substantial opportunity in providing a public mainframe cloud – IaaS or even PaaS. Despite all odds (and predictions) mainframe is – depending on the quarter – still a growth market, albeit at mostly marginal rates (1-2% p.a). Yet on the same day Hardy posted his article, Matt Eastwood of IDC (@matteastwood) reported:

Remember that this is just for new MIPS. And for hardware sales alone. If this rate was sustained over the whole year (which is very unlikely), then just substituting cloud for new mainframe purchases makes an annual market of $3.6bn.  Much of this growth is likely the product of inertia. Many organizations with mainframes would much prefer to use open commodity PAYG platforms. As Mark Griffin (@grifmon), Enterprise Integration Architect at Genworth Financial, noted:

Others like Mark will go as far as to eliminate their mainframes entirely, and many more would like to:

This seems logical, and smart for many CIOs, which is why some (not all) pundits predict mainframe markets will shrink over the mid-term. This seems reasonable too, even though there are also organizations that are continuing to actively invest in their mainframe systems, and for very good reasons – like scalability, throughput, and availability.

However, few mainframe CIOs can just dump their System z investments onto commodity cloud, even if they wanted to. A large public mainframe cloud doesn’t really exist; it is tough to justify investment in porting, let alone rewriting entire applications; and mainframe applications are so complex, ingrained, and mission-critical that the risk and effort is huge. Meanwhile, as Mark notes, there is a day-to-day IT business to run:

And who has time for that and a mainframe migration project with massive risk and little payoff? So the inertia is with maintaining current services, growing mainframe as little as possible, while avoiding mainframe for new applications. This inertia both helps the mainframe market to grow at the margins, and inhibits enterprises from migrating to commodity cloud services. Yet, the growing market for new mainframe MIPS is just one opportunity for mainframe cloud. There is also the market for ‘lift-and-shift’ onto a fully-compatible mainframe cloud, to take those ‘lights-on’ processors off the CIO’s books. Not to mention the non-critical dev/test mainframes that could be easily replaced with a public mainframe cloud. Objective commentators who are learned about these issues – someone like Gartner’s Lydia Leong (@cloudpundit) – certainly get this:

Even Simon Wardley (@swardley), often curmudgeonly on how disruption leaves stale old businesses behind, gets this:

This is not even considering the opportunity for ‘truly’ innovative mainframe cloud services.

No surprise then, if IBM/Softlayer end up doing exactly this. IBM/Softlayer exec Crosby was very explicit that IBM has big (iron) plans for a mainframe cloud:

Mr. Crosby said, IBM is “absolutely” looking to sell its big mainframe computing capabilities as a cloud-based service.

Of course, many big questions still remain – like when, what, and how much. Everyone has expected IBM to do this for some time, but it is surely (as Lydia Leong put it), a non-trivial exercise to implement. So when will it be available? How much functionality will it have? And what will it cost?

I certainly expect IBM to follow through on this eventually. It really seems just a matter of time.  I will be excited to see it if or when it does come, as a mainframe cloud will usher in a world of opportunity for mainframe enterprises. Meanwhile I will continue to see private mainframe clouds delivering real business value, and proving true the myth of the mainframe cloud.


(image via Spin-Art at DeviantArt)

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