The mainframe has never really gone away as far as IBM is concerned.
As if to prove this, last week the company blitzed the market with a series of announcements intended to bring its mainframe technology to a wider user base.
One of them, about the new S/390 mainframes, marks an aggressive change in the attitude of the mainframe division. In effect it attacks Hewlett Packard, Digital and the concept of PC-based networks being used to run mission-critical applications.
The key box in the war against other suppliers is the Multiprise 2000, which previously had the codename Barracuda. Although IBM's line is that the Multiprise 2000 is aimed at its own VM/VSE and VSE/ESA customers, analysts have no doubt that the new system is pitched at the company's competitors.
'One of the things that IBM is thinking is that the Multiprise 2000 will restart the mainframe and damage HP and Digital,' says Phil Payne, a consultant with analyst Sievers.
IBM sold more mainframe Mips in 1995 than at any time in its history.
In its official documents, the company makes it clear that it feels the mainframe solution is now an option for medium-sized companies which in the past would have opted for a Unix or PC-based networking system.
IBM states in a white paper, New Advantages of Being Powered By S/390: 'In the light of the traditional strengths of yesterday's mainframes, such as security, systems management, reliability, availability, etc, it is easy to understand why the S/390 is faring so well in the face of more trendy collections of smaller computers trying to replace them in mission-critical situations. Of course small computers play a vital and growing role in today's computing world. But time has shown that you run into trouble when you try to do a large servers job with a group of small computers.'
Payne is convinced that the Multiprise 2000 will eventually be targeted against HP and Digital in spite of IBM's protestations that in essence it is a box aimed at the current installed base. Earlier this year, IBM confirmed it was looking at the possibility of marketing some of its lower end boxes through the channel, but to date no one has been appointed.
According to Arthur Parker, director of S/390 business for EMEA, the company has no immediate plans to appoint resellers for the new mainframe boxes. But there are signs that IBM is considering the channel as a conduit for the Multiprise 2000. Among the clutch of S/390 announcements was the release of an R/390, a board which slots into the RS/6000 Unix machine, and allows the box to run the mainframe operating system. The RS/6000 is already sold through the channels and IBM is vetting its Unix resellers to ascertain whether they have the skills to sell and support the mainframe operating system.
Although the R/390 has been available in the US for some time, it has only just been released in Europe. Nick Drabble, S/390 marketing manager at IBM, admits that selling the R/390 through resellers is 'a test bed of the channel for high-end systems'.
But it is not a one-way traffic, according to Mark Lilleycrop, senior consultant with IBM watcher Xephon. 'Part of what HP and Digital are aiming at is the disaffected VM/VSE market. They are being forced into making a migration decision in the next couple of years. IBM has accepted that it can make money out of VM/VSE users by offering them a bundle of service and applications offerings,' he says.
There are further indications that IBM is planning to go head to head with its rivals. The Multiprise 2000 does not support IBM's parallel sysplex, which links MVS systems to present them as a single image. The licences for these systems are based on IBM's parallel sysplex licence charge.
But because the technology is not supported on the Multiprise 2000 it allows IBM to be more flexible and more aggressive with its licensing of the system. So far the company has not released any details of hardware pricing for the machine or of its intentions of how it will license the software.
Unusually for IBM, which normally announces its products months before delivering them, the Multiprise 2000 will be available in volume from 30 September, according to Parker. This means that the issue of hardware and software pricing must be sorted out in fairly short order if customers begin to demand the machine.
Initially, at least, IBM is likely to sell the machine under the terms of its special bid programme. A special bid is in effect a confidential purchasing agreement between IBM and a customer where the price is negotiated on a one-by-one basis and where the terms and conditions vary from customer to customer.
IBM's current relationship with its S/390 partners, generally software developers, is that they go in and sell the solution and IBM troops in afterwards and sells the hardware. If IBM decides to go through the channels, this arrangement will probably have to change. But the Multiprise 2000 is an ideal turnkey solution to the requirements of many customers. The hardware, operating systems, applications, services and maintenance could all be bundled by the vendor, whether IBM or a reseller, and delivered to the customer. IBM stresses that packaged software and fee services will help get them up and running quickly.
The Multiprise 2000 has other attractions for Unix or NT users. Through open systems adaptors, the machine will support Unix or NT, so the look and feel of the system stays the same.
But the real advantage is behind the scenes. Established mainframe operating systems score highly on data integrity, data security and systems management, areas where Unix and NT are regarded as weak.
There are 13 models of the Multiprise 2000, starting with a single-engine model and going up the upgrade path to a five-way system.
'The S/390 Multiprise 2000 family includes entry-level models that are small and cost-effective,' according to IBM. 'This means that enterprises using or considering using Unix and NT servers now have a low-cost alternative to consider - S/390 CMOS servers.'
This is not the first time that IBM has tried to destroy the fortunes of Digital and other competitors. In 1986, when Digital was in the ascendancy and pushing hard at the doors of IBM, the company announced the 9370, quickly dubbed the 'Vax killer', which supported six operating systems.
The machine failed to take off and only the decline in Digital's fortunes saved IBM from losing face. The 9370 was ditched when the ES/9000 (now the S/390) machines were introduced in 1990. This time round the target is HP.
Drabble argues that there is a significant difference between the Multiprise 2000 and the 9370. 'The 9370 did not succeed because there was no price differential and the software was unnecessarily complex,' he says. The Multiprise 2000 is probably not a plug-and-play machine, but IBM has certainly made concessions to the non-mainframe user base.
John Saw, technical marketing manager at HP, does not believe the Multiprise 2000 represents any threat to the company's installed base. But he admits that IBM has positioned the box cleverly.
'It sounds to me that IBM has been quite astute, because if you were considering moving to a mid-sized box you would probably look at this one,' says Saw. 'But I cannot see that it is a direct threat to the established Unix suppliers, including the IBM RS/6000. It does not sound like this is an active announcement that says let's go out and take the market by storm. It is more of a defensive announcement intended to protect IBM's installed base.'
By any standards, the launch of the latest family of mainframe products ranging from the R/390, through Multiprise 2000 up to the higher end Generation 3 high-end systems is a watershed in the IT business. Alongside the thin client Network Station, which was released last month, the Multiprise 2000 represents IBM going on the offensive against the likes of HP, Digital, Intel and Microsoft. Many observers see a need for a return to a more centrally based and managed IT environment. This fits in with customers' increasing concerns about the long-term costs of PC-based computing in the corporate environment, and the demand for greater data security, data integrity, and systems management.
Saw points out that few channel resellers are familiar with mainframe architecture and operating systems and that extensive training is needed to bring them up to speed.
He also believes that IBM customers, used to having their machines, operating systems and applications, installed and maintained by IBM systems personnel may think twice before committing these processes to a reseller.
The Multiprise 2000, whether or not it eventually ends up in the hands of the resellers, is bound to have an impact on the market. If it is a flop like the 9370, IBM will end up with egg on its face and its rivals can start to crow. If it is taken up by sections of IBM's installed base but fails to attract new customers to the mainframe camp then it will be a partial victory.
But if IBM can convince companies that they can now have a low-cost, high-performance turnkey system with the look and feel of their Unix or NT systems, then Big Blue will be the one to do the gloating.
The fact that IBM has said it will have Multiprise 2000 systems available in volume in September seems to indicate that it believes that customers will want the box at least to run pilot projects on. But if IBM is eventually going to go through the channel with the Multiprise 2000 it will need to get its hardware and software pricing policy sorted out.
Nobody expects the Multiprise 2000 to sell like hot cakes, but with the Network Station and rising concern about PC networking costs and security, IBM might once again change the face of computing.
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