A competitive IBM System z market

Most of us have never experienced a competitive mainframe market. IBM controls the hardware and the operating system. It allows ISVs to provide applications under apparently pretty restrictive conditions. But that may change, or maybe it already is changing.

Once there actually was a somewhat competitive mainframe market when a group of vendors offered what was referred to as plug-compatibles, machines that would run IBM mainframe software without modification. These vendors were collectively referred to as the BUNCH, an acronym for Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data Corp., and Honeywell. With the departure of the BUNCH, not long after I started writing about mainframes, IBM completely controlled the mainframe market. Another competitor, Amdahl, now a subsidiary of Fujitsu, built rival large enterprise systems but never was a plug-compatible player.

In a lawsuit filed by T3 Technologies with the EU  the company complained of anti-competitive, monopolistic IBM practices. In announcing the filing in Jan, T3 cited an IDC report saying IBM controls over 99% of all existing IBM-compatible mainframes in use today. T3 apparently aims to build systems for small data centers, 500 MIPS or less.

Spurred by complaints from T3, the US Justice Department reportedly has launched a review of IBM’s competitive practices. This may account for recent IBM activities that otherwise seem baffling.

For example, IBM seems willing to tolerate Hercules, an open source software implementation of the mainframe System/370 and ESA/390 architectures and the new 64-bit z/Architecture. Hercules allows you to run mainframe applications under Linux, Windows (98, NT, 2000, and XP), Solaris, FreeBSD, and Mac OS X (10.3 and later) as an emulation.

OK, I can understand IBM’s reluctance to crush Hercules. After all it is emulation and open source so it probably won’t make much of a dent in IBM’s revenue. Some of the OpenSolaris on z people even look to it to test their efforts on an x86-based system since many lack ready access to an actual System z.

But now there is TurboHercules, a commercial version. Suddenly there is money at stake. IBM probably has not cracked down on TurboHercules because the company exploits a tiny loophole in the IBM mainframe license that allows a licensee to run its software on a different platform in the event its mainframe is temporarily unavailable. For organizations with only one System z, TurboHercules would enable them to legally recover their systems temporarily on another platform, say a large Intel box.

So what explains IBM’s tolerance for Neon’s zPrime, which helps more mainframe applications to run on System z specialty processors as a deliberate strategy to lower software licensing costs? ISVs tell me that they could do what zPrime does but they have refrained out of fear that IBM will crack down. They are just waiting for IBM to pounce on Neon.

In truth, IBM has been schizophrenic about openness and control for years. On the one hand IBM zealously guards its System z intellectual property. On the other, it created the open source Eclipse community and contributes code. More recently, it has called for an open, standards-based cloud environment.

Maybe the sniffing by the Justice Department is restraining IBM’s most restrictive tendencies. And in this little window, TurboHercules and zPrime just might take root.

The bigger question is whether the mainframe actually is a monopoly today. Customers, usually smaller companies, migrate off the mainframe every year for distributed platforms from HP and Sun. So even if IBM controls the mainframe, it doesn’t control enterprise computing.

There are customer advantages to IBM’s control of the System z environment in terms of investment and innovation, not unlike what Apple customers gain from its control of the Mac platform. Yes, System z prices remain high, but IBM, faced with x86-based competition, is scrambling to reduce customer TCO every possible way without actually cutting z acquisition prices. Competition is good.

3 Responses to “A competitive IBM System z market”

  1. Jon Nolting Says:

    A major correction relative to Amdahl. Amdahl did in fact build PCM computers that completely supported IBM’s 31-bit operating systems and subsystems. Amdahl introduced the first hardware virtualization technology known as MDF and continued to innovate against IBM as a PCM vendor until Fujitsu decided not to build a 64-bit server to compete with the zSeries from IBM. I was at Amdahl for 15 years and know for sure that we ran every bit of IBM software extremely well on Amdahl servers.

  2. George McQuilken Says:

    I believe you have your definitions backwards. “The Bunch” did not provide plug compatible machines. Gene Amdahl led the way, inventing the concept; his technology was later licensed by Japanese firms, I seem to recall they were Hitachi and Fujitsu, and perhaps Mitsubishi. Other PCMs included Elbit, Nixdorf, Spartacus, and others that I can’t recall on the spot. RCA had a “mostly PCM” architecture for their Spectra series, though there were some minor but irritating incompatibilites, I seem to recall they were with the I/O architecture (channel commands). If this topic is important to many of your readers, I could refresh my memory and prepare a more complete post.

  3. Scott Hatanaka Says:

    Alan,
    You are wrong about IBM’s acceptance… they are definitely looking to sue Neon about zprime and have sent them a cease and desist letter to them. They sued Platform Solutions(who countersued) before IBM bought them out. IBM has been very reluctant to license a current version of z/os to Hercules and have warned people that they are in license violation if they do use it without IBM’s express permission. It is still a bit early on TurboHercules, but it wouldn’t surprise me that they go after them too. Also, the issue with T3 is not about system z but with the OS’s …. z/os, z/VSE, which T3 was licensed by IBM to run on a x-series, until IBM pulled the plug on the FLEX/ES line, when the BC units came out.

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