Death of the Mainframe? IBM Laughs all the Way to the Bank

Last Updated Jul 19, 2011 8:03 AM EDT

For two decades, people in tech circles have been saying that the mainframe is on its way out, or that it's dead altogether. Funny thing about that -- someone forgot to tell IBM.

Just look at IBM's second quarter results. Forget that quarterly revenue was up by 12 percent (5 percent adjusted for currency) year over year, or that net income climbed by 8 percent. Instead, look at an interesting set of numbers: the results of IBM's mainframe business. And you'll see that mainframes, and all the legacy, old-time IT they represent will be around for a long time to come.

Here's the telling quote in the earnings release:

Revenues from System z mainframe server products increased 61 percent compared with the year-ago period. Total delivery of System z computing power, as measured in MIPS (millions of instructions per second), increased 86 percent.
Not only are product sales sharply up, but the actual use of IBM's System z mainframe computing leapt by 86 percent. This isn't an anomaly if you look at IBM's Q1 earnings release. System z product sales were up then year-over-year by 41 percent, while delivery of computing power as measured in MIPS was up by 34 percent.

Proclamations of the mainframe's death are hardly new. Technology expert and now-venture capitalist Stewart Alsop famously predicted the death of the mainframe in 1991.

People keep getting this wrong because usually it's some technologist that places the Mark of Uncool Tech Doom. They figure that nothing around as long as the mainframe can last much longer, given the advance of computing. What they forget is that vendors apply the same improvements to all products, whether cute little blade server enclosure or substantial mainframe implementation.

They also forget that corporations don't care about cool as much as they do making their money go further. It's hard to walk away from decades' worth of COBOL code when they can keep running the same old thing and not spend the years and millions it would take to port to something else.

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Image: Flickr user donjd2, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.