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New job for mainframes: Cloud platform

Tam Harbert | March 31, 2011
Mainframes are stable, secure and under your control -- perfect for anchoring a private cloud -- but where's the user provisioning?


Iron cloud in its infancy

But it's hard to find an organization that's using a mainframe in a self-provisioned cloud computing platform. Some analysts say the talk of the mainframe as cloud is just hype. The technology may indeed exist, but the question is whether companies are actually implementing it, says Bill Claybrook, president of New River Marketing Research in Concord, Mass. "If they are not automating things, if they don't have a self-service portal, then it's not a cloud architecture, it's just a virtualized environment," he says.

There is incongruity between what's out there in cloud today and what these big mainframes do.
Phil Murphy, analyst, Forrester Research

One reason why it's hard to find a self-provisioned mainframe-based cloud computing setup may be because these are still early days in the development of cloud computing. "There is incongruity between what's out there in cloud today and what these big mainframes do," says Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Business units might use a credit card to buy some extra compute cycles for a one-time project, for example, but most companies would not run mission-critical, transaction-processing applications in the cloud.

The one cloud scenario that Murphy can point to that includes self provisioning is the model used by global outsourcing companies, where far-flung developers have the ability to automatically set up their own test and development platforms. Those aren't all mainframe-based, but Murphy thinks some of them must be. Under the old system, "the developer had to request operations to set this up and it would take weeks or months. Now in a matter of 15 minutes, he can do it himself," he says.

Mullen agrees that that's a good example. A platform-as-a-service setup like that "is perhaps the dominant usage of a cloud infrastructure in mainframe environments today," he says.

But as cloud computing matures and as new models of mainframes begin to offer more computing power at lower costs than they do today, more companies will experiment. Hurwitz, for one, says many of her clients are looking into it, although none are ready to talk about it publicly. "It's something we're going to see a lot more of," she predicts.


Marist College, early adopter

Marist College is a poster child for IBM mainframes. The college is right down the road from an IBM mainframe manufacturing plant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (Last April, IBM announced it would build System z mainframes and high-end Power Systems servers there.)


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