Two Tribes, One Future: Bringing Mainframes Into the IT Mainstream

Too many enterprises are running parallel IT operations, with big iron and distributed groups barely crossing paths, let alone sharing hard-earned expertise. CIOs need to get this schism under control lest businesses end up the ultimate casualties of high-tech turf warfare.

August 3, 2009

6 Min Read
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Two groups with a lot in common and plenty to lose are separated by management, perception, and old feuds and prejudices. Money is tight, and fighting words are flying. Not everywhere, mind you--most of the 831 business technology professionals responding to our InformationWeek Analytics Mainframe Survey say their companies use both mainframes and distributed systems, and choose based on the best platform for a given task. But the radical fringe is alive, well, and possibly living in your data center.

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"The distributed model of computing is far more powerful than the centralized mainframe model," says one respondent. Another says he'd consider moving to a mainframe only if it were running as a Windows Server 64-bit OS with virtual Windows Servers in both 64 and 32 bit. Dream on, buddy.

Our research also brought in some choice comments from the big iron camp. What's most disturbing here is the wasted opportunity. IT professionals love to talk the talk about convergence. Whether it's voice, video, security, mobile devices, or the cloud, we hold meetings on, write proposals about, and study new ways to combine operations and save money. But the convergence opportunity of the decade could be right in front of us, in the form of making mainframe and distributed computing teams one. Will CIOs walk the walk, even if there's political heat attached?

237ID2_Mainframe_chart23_440.gif"Bringing your teams together has to start at the top," says Charlie Weston, group VP of information technology at grocery chain Winn-Dixie, one of only a few organizations we know of that has successfully reorganized IT to bring mainframe and distributed factions under one banner. The team has two subgroups, architecture and operations. One designs it, one runs it. All platforms are managed together; mainframe and distributed teams work together and report to the same person.Winn-Dixie wasn't always set up this way. Until a few years ago, it mirrored most other companies in our survey, with separate groups that tended to work in their own silos. The IT leadership always knew this wasn't the best way to be organized, but didn't do anything about it. So how did Weston achieve collaboration nirvana? Divine inspiration? An especially motivating ITIL seminar?

Bankruptcy. The chain, which is based in Jacksonville, Fla., went through a massive shakeup as part of its 2005 bankruptcy filing. As part of the 21-month reorganization process, IT was configured from the ground up as one team. "It required a real commitment and focus to pull everyone together," says Weston, in what we suspect is an understatement.

More companies need to follow Winn-Dixie's lead, albeit without the whole Chapter 11 part. Merging core systems, operations, staffing, and support will let CIOs deliver the best possible IT services and can bring significant savings in a variety of areas.

As we discuss in our full report, available at, more of us have big iron on site than you might think: Mainframes are in use in 90% of the Fortune 1,000 and a large percentage of midmarket companies, according to IBM and the Computer & Communications Industry Association. About 70% of mainframe users among our poll respondents have expanded their deployments over the past year, despite the economy. The fastest growth seems to be Linux running under z/VM, IBM's virtualization OS for the mainframe, based on IBM's first-quarter 2009 results.

The first step to detente? Rally everyone around Linux and virtualization.The Linux Connection

Winn-Dixie's bankruptcy was a painful process that eventually created a new, better IT organization; the grocery chain is now posting solid financial results. A less radical way to get teams to get along and start focusing on the business issues at hand is to go right at the core integration point--your Linux environment. Not the OS itself, but the applications on top of it.

"If you're focusing on Web services with Linux back-end engines, you shouldn't even be thinking about the platform. That only matters once you start mapping out your data. Let your underlying database and required performance drive which platform hosts the app servers; the answer typically jumps right out at you if you're willing to look," says Mark Malinoski, a senior application architect for a national health insurance provider who has worked in both environments.

Problem is, too many of us aren't looking. While 89% of respondents who run Linux on the mainframe also run it on their distributed platforms, only 27% of these folks have a single coordinated Linux team. The rest have separate groups, sometimes with little or no interaction. Here's some real low-hanging fruit. Not only can CIOs better leverage both teams, they also could start them on a path toward working together at the OS level. However, don't expect everyone to be excited.

One director at a Midwest financial institution says his group is actively looking at z/VM but is getting push back. "The Linux OS staff are fearful that they will inherit z/OS when the geezers who run it retire," he says. They needn't worry, because the environment is just not that different. In fact, CA told us about a test done internally where engineers were shown two Linux instances, one on a mainframe, one on x86. The majority couldn't tell the difference.So the staffing concern is real, but hardly insurmountable. If you can get the application and OS teams together, the next step is to bridge the virtualization divide. Again, very few organizations are approaching virtualization in terms of a single enterprise strategy across all platforms. Most are working in departmental silos with no overall coordination.

237ID2_Mainframe_chart31_440.gifEven if a company does have a mainframe, 24% of organizations still don't consider it an option for distributed server virtualization. That's incredibly shortsighted. Not only is there likely significant experience with the fundamentals of virtualization on the mainframe side, you may have already paid for the licensing. IBM retooled its programs a few years ago, introducing separate licensing engines for Linux and z/VM. That doesn't mean distributed-only shops should consider adding a mainframe, of course, but if you've got one, your Linux virtualization plan may be able to leverage the existing investment, especially if the primary database targets for the Linux servers reside on the mainframe.

Now, we're also not saying everything should be virtualized, on the mainframe or otherwise. There will always be cases when you'll do traditional installations--systems with integrated peripherals, applications that make hardware calls, and security appliances jump to mind. But IT shops that don't have virtualization plans are probably also still holding onto their Banyan Vines CDs, hoping for a resurgence.

Weston confirms the level of confidence and focus an integrated shop can have when it comes to virtualizing a Windows environment. Winn-Dixie is currently virtualizing "everything we have," including pulling remote-site processing back to a virtualized core. Virtualization platform selection (mainframe or x86) depends solely on the best fit for the application. Now that's a truce we can all get behind.

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