July 28, 2011
Just how hot is IBM’s most venerable computer line? Well, revenue from the high-end machines known as mainframes surged 61% in the second quarter, capping the best four quarters of growth for the segment in five years.
Not bad for a product that has repeatedly been written off as dead or outdated, as most computing chores shift to lower-priced servers that descended from personal computers.
IBM’s big iron has been showing faster revenue growth than those machines, which are powered by so-called x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices and are the technology of choice for Web-based applications known as cloud computing. Intel last week said its cloud-based business is up 50% in the first two quarters, while the broader data center business that includes all x86 server chips was up 15% in the second period.
Nor is IBM only milking its installed base, selling additional systems to longtime users that can’t easily move their software to alternative hardware. “We’ve added 68 new mainframe customers,” says Rod Adkins, who oversees IBM hardware sales as senior vice president of its systems and technology group.
Who would start from scratch with mainframes in this day and age? In large part, Adkins says, the new users are banks and other businesses in countries like Senegal, Namibia, Brazil and other emerging economies.
While x86 servers usually cost less to buy, he says, mainframes wind up having lower operating costs for some kinds of applications, along with advantages in security and reliability. “They pretty much run with zero downtime,” Adkins says.
And pricing is coming down. IBM has a new model, the zEnterprise 114, that starts at $75,000–the lowest entry price ever for an IBM mainframe, down from $100,000 for a machine announced in October 2008.
To be sure, there have long been boom and bust cycles in mainframe sales–and another upswing was likely for multiple reasons. Jean Bozman, an analyst at IDC, notes that mainframe sales were badly hurt after the recession hit in late 2008. Then some customers continued to hold off purchases while waiting for a new refresh of the hardware that began in mid-2010, she says.
When they resumed buying, the slow sales in the last two quarters of 2009 and the first two quarters of 2010 created an easy comparison that would tend to boost percentage growth rates.
Still, Bozman characterizes the recent demand for the technology remarkable. “How many time have there been stories in the newspaper saying the mainframe is dead?” she asks. “Not only is it not dead, we are seeing growth in new places.”
Source: The Wall Street Journal (WSJ.com)