Earlier this year, some of my colleagues and I who work with IBM information management software for the System z platform were invited to write essays addressing the question, "Why is IBM System z essential to business?" I decided to act on this invitation, and to get my creative juices flowing I imagined an impromptu conversation with a skeptical CEO on the business value of System z. A co-worker requested that I post my essay on my DB2 blog, so I'm doing that now. You'll find it below. I hope that it will provide you with some ideas that you can use in discussions that you might have at your site about the value of System z as an enterprise data-serving platform.
On a recent business trip, I got an upgrade to first class on the flight home. The person seated next to me turned out to be the CEO of a retail company. When I told her that I work for IBM, she said, “Ah, yes. Big Blue. Big Iron.” And then, “When are you folks going to get out of the mainframe business and into the modern world?”
Smiling, I replied, “Since that’s a two-part question, I’ll give you a two-part answer. First, I suppose we’ll get out of the mainframe business when our customers give up on the platform, and our customers are doing nothing of the sort. Second, organizations that utilize mainframes, which in the context of our product line are called IBM System z servers, know that it’s not a choice between using mainframes and moving into the ‘modern world,’ as you put it, because System z technology is always moving forward – has been for almost fifty years. A server line doesn’t stick around that long if it’s standing still.”
The CEO smiled back at me, warming to the debate. “OK, so mainframes, or (air quotes) ‘System z servers,’ can do what they’ve done for a long time, and they can do it faster than before. But doing the same thing faster doesn’t mean they’re doing the right thing. Mainframes run legacy applications just fine, but newer applications have to be more flexible and adaptable – my CIO talks a lot about ‘agile’ applications. Frankly, I think of mainframes as rigid and ponderous – not the light-on-their-feet systems that we need in today’s world.”
Back to me. “I hear what you’re saying. In addition to ‘agile,’ I imagine that your CIO uses terms such as ‘service-oriented,’ ‘multi-tiered,’ and ‘loosely coupled’ in describing your newer application systems.”
“Those words sound familiar,” said the CEO.
“Your CIO is thinking the right way,” I said, “but there’s no reason that mainframes can’t be part of his thinking. Organizations all over the world are developing applications with all of the characteristics cited by your CIO, and these applications are running on mainframes, or they’re running on other platforms – and accessing data stored on mainframes. Either way, System z servers are the foundation on which these very modern applications are built.”
The CEO shook her head. “Even if building those kinds of applications on a mainframe is technically possible, it’s an expensive proposition based on what I know.”
“Look,” I said, “as the captain of a big ship, you understand that the tip of an iceberg is not the big concern – the whole of the iceberg is what matters. Similarly, people who say that mainframes are expensive tend to focus only on a part of the cost-of-computing iceberg – namely, the part that is the initial cost to acquire the server hardware and software. Why don’t you have your CIO take you through your data center to see all the other costs? Get him to show you where the mainframes are and compare that to where the non-mainframe servers are. How much floor space do those other servers take up? How much electricity do they consume? How much heat do they pump out, adding to your data center cooling costs? After you’ve surveyed your computer server scene, get the CIO to go over his org chart with you. How many people support the System z servers? How many support the non-mainframe servers? I think you’ll find that your System z servers handle a big workload at a total cost of computing that compares very favorably to that of your non-mainframe servers.”
I could see that the CEO’s gears were turning. “You’ve got me curious. I think I’ll take that data center tour. But I think that you’re leaving out an important cost factor: the people who develop our applications. The programmers we hire out of college know languages like Java. Mainframe programs are written mostly in COBOL, right? The only people who know that language these days are folks who’ve been programming since the 1970s, and a lot of them are pretty expensive.”
“It’s true,” I said, “that many programs running on mainframes are written in COBOL – largely because COBOL programs that were written years ago still run great on mainframes. They still keep the trucks rolling, the shelves stocked, and the customer invoices flowing. But application developers today – including the twenty-somethings – are accessing mainframe databases using Java and even Python and other languages with amusing names such as Ruby, C#, Perl, and PHP. These are often modern web-interfacing applications with slick user interfaces.”
“I don’t know,” said the CEO. “I hear that ‘open systems’ are the way to go. That leaves mainframes out, right?”
“Not as I see it. A computing platform can be ‘closed’ – in the sense that one company owns the design and development of the associated hardware and operating system – and still be an excellent fit in a heterogeneous application infrastructure. The key is to have open interfaces to the platform. When a Java programmer uses something called Java database connectivity, or JDBC – an industry-standard interface – to access records in a relational database, his work isn’t made any more challenging because he’s targeting a database on a System z server.”
“Well if the mainframe database looks to a programmer like databases on other servers, what’s the advantage of having the data on a mainframe?” asked the CEO.
“Good question. The mainframe database system likely looks different versus other data-serving platforms because it’s always up, never gets hacked, and never gets in the way of your company’s growth.”
Now the CEO cracks a pretty good smile. “Nice pitch. I’m going to follow up on it when I get back to the office.”
“You should. Remember: our job is to help you win in the marketplace. Some of your most effective weapons have “IBM” and “System z” stamped on them. Use them for all they’re worth, and kick some butt.”
“Will do.” Then, turning to the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine: “Do you know a three-letter word for ‘essential company’?”