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Will L. L. Bean give its IBM mainframes the boot? Platform Solutions sure hopes so. Platform Solutions' software and firmware product turns Itanium servers into mainframes. It's had an HP Superdome running this code inside Bean for about a year, since December 2004. You don't have to be a gumshoe to find out how things are going: Bean's Pat Caroll has been out on the circuit saying the Maine frame is terrific. Is the market really ready for a compatible system? Is IBM? Is Platform Solutions?
The story at L. L. Bean is not so much about the mainframe, or about IBM, but about retailing in the Internet age. In general, old line retailers have not had an easy time moving from mail order to Web order. Sears long ago lost its preeminence, adding the cost of toilet paper to the other economic burdens faced by farmers across America. Montgomery Ward isn't even a name the iPod generation can recognize. Spiegel is fighting to survive and its Eddie Bauer business, which competes with Bean, shows that even a focus on the faux rural market isn't a sure thing.
People still like to shop from home, though. It's only how and where they shop that has changed. Amazon has filled some of the gap left by the demise of firms rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, but has done so without having to carry legacy technology into the online marketplace. eBay, another child of the dot-com generation, has pitched in, too, along the way giving new meaning to the phrase "electric fence." Neither has yet attained the extraordinary level of consumer trust enjoyed by L. L. Bean, however, and in the case of eBay it may never happen as long as the company insists on silly capitalization. That spelling twitch is a warning iPod buyers ignored until quite recently. It's also one IBM has failed to reckon with in the case of its "lower-case-first-capital-S-second Series" brand names, but things always take a lot longer to happen at IBM than anywhere else.
L. L. Bean, wiser than many others, decided that it might be able to become modern without changing its name to l. L. Bean and without tossing out all its legacy mainframe applications, too. It moved to Linux on IBM mainframe iron to run its Web and also to carry the Sendmail system that keeps Web buyers informed about the state of their orders. A lot of Bean's infrastructure software uses Java technology that can run on gelded mainframe engines that IBM sells at a discount compared to engines that support z/OS. It's not clear to outsiders whether Bean's DB2 procedures can be supported under z/OS.e, the economy version of z/OS, but it's a safe bet Bean's bean counters, who count for a lot in the company's survival, are in favor of this.
By some process that remains a mystery wrapped in a rubber boot, Platform Solutions and Bean found each other. Bean needs a way to run heavy, secure Web transactions and back end mainframe work as cheaply as possible, but still with mainframe class reliability. Platform Solutions wants to peddle Hewlett-Packard Superdomes and other Itanium 2 boxes (like the ones Fujitsu-Siemens just started peddling), equipped with its code on some or all of their engines. Platform Solutions also lets prospects know that any engines not running in IBM mode can be used to run Linux, Windows, HP-UX, and even OpenVMS.
IT analysts at Gartner spotted the obvious but not openly expressed proposition in the Platform Solutions sales pitch: The system looks like a great exit strategy for shops that want to ease off IBM mainframe hardware and do their growth in a less costly software environment. Because mainframe exit strategies turn out to fail a lot, or, to be kinder, to often not quite succeed as anticipated, the Platform Solutions idea comes with a safety net that has a finer mesh than anything IBM offers. Superdome machines running mainframe software have more granularity than IBM zSeries processors. The mainframe power can be moved up or down in 50 MIPS to 100 MIPS increments. Linux power can be changed in relatively small increments, too, compared to what's possible in the mainframe world. And the Windows option is simply something that is not available on IBM zSeries iron. While Bean might not want to ditch DB2 even as it trims its reliance on other legacy technologies, having Windows, Linux, and Unix options can't hurt the user's bargaining position when it's time to haggle over software license fees.
Perot Systems, testing a Platform Solutions platform, too, and Lufthansa, which might have the biggest Platform Solutions box of them all, are probably thinking along the same lines. But unlike Bean, these two users, who are probably not the only ones, are still hiding under nondisclosure agreements even as their IBM sales reps bone up on Internet technology, such as that used by Monster.com.
It almost sounds too good to be true, and that's because the story so far is not the whole story.
First, while a few companies seem to have been able to license IBM software for use on the Platform Solutions system, none of them are using it in production. IBM has licensed its systems software and middleware for testing and development purposes in some situations where it so far has refused to offer licenses for production use of the same programs.
The most relevant example is the case with the low end IBM emulator offered by Fundamental Software, Flex-ES. Flex for end users runs on X86 hardware under SCO Unix and is allowed to support 31-bit IBM software, such as z/OS 1.4. Software pricing for Flex boxes is based on plans IBM has offered on relatively modest machines in the past. There is no end user Flex pricing based on 64-bit zSeries software, and no such software is available to the Flex end user base. By contrast, software developers can run Flex under Linux as well as SCO, they can get 64-bit IBM systems software and middleware, and they often can even get their software for free or next to nothing as long as they are deemed legit developers by IBM.
There is another connection between Platform Solutions and Fundamental. Platform Solutions seems to have cut some kind of distribution deal with T3 Technologies, which, before it stuck the Platform Solutions deal up Fundamental's fundament, and maybe since, too, was the biggest distributor of Flex-ES systems.
So far, Platform Solutions isn't even as far along the zSeries road as Fundamental. First and foremost, even though its system runs on 64-bit Itanium hardware, the IBM mainframes it emulates are all confined to 31-bit mode (or older modes). That's right: Platform Solutions is still getting the kinks out of its 64-bit capability. The company does have 64-bit IBM systems software running on its internal development platforms, and I expect the company to say it's ready to mimic 64-bit zSeries iron any minute now, which probably means next year. But even if Platform Solutions claims full zSeries code compatibility, the question of end user software licensing remains open.
Basically, IBM has to do three things. First, it has to agree that it will license its mainframe software for use in production on Platform Solutions platforms. Then, it has to put Platform Solutions platforms on the list of systems that get favorable software pricing from IBM, the way it has put 64-bit zSeries machines on this list. This list already excludes many of IBM's older processors. Finally, IBM has to assign MSU power ratings, which in most case determine software costs, to Platform Solutions' platforms.
By the time IBM does all this, if in fact it ever does all this, a lot of things in the mainframe world can change. For instance, IBM could offer its own line of smaller, cheaper, and more granular machines for customers who want what L. L. Bean wants. Or IBM could offer some kind of Power-based mainframes that provide Linux (but not Windows) and value comparable to the value offered by Platform Solutions on Itanium iron. And that's only the short list of one-frame solutions.
Still, it's hard to be all that gloomy about Platform Solutions. Before IBM shook off the old generation of plug-compatible mainframe makers, including Amdahl, whose intellectual property has been licensed to Platform Solutions, ersatz IBM mainframes were often ahead of IBM's own products in one way or another. It took IBM's move from bipolar technology to CMOS to shake off the old PCMs, and even that accomplishment was hardly an unqualified success. IBM permanently lost its dominance of high end storage, for instance, and never figured out it should have made AIX completely open.
That last bit of knowledge, however, may be the one thing IBM learns from the Platform Solutions saga, however the story unfolds. Platform Solutions didn't want to run on Itanium at first. Instead, it built its earliest systems on Power iron. But in the end, and with the help of some capital from Intel, it moved to an Itanium hardware base early in its corporate life. As a byproduct of this decision it is now has the only mainframe system that can cohabitate with 64-bit Windows.
As part of a slideshow Platform Solutions presented during last summer's SHARE mainframe user group meeting, the company presented data obtained by asking z/OS users what operating system they favored for new applications other than z/OS. We don't know who asked the questions or how, but we do know the answers Platform Solutions got: Nearly 40 percent said Windows, more than 20 percent said Linux, and Solaris came in third. AIX was fourth. Unfortunately for Hewlett-Packard, HP-UX did a lot worse than AIX and about the same as Others.
And that's all we know so far about the sole of this new machine.
— Hesh Wiener November 2005