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Another Perspective


A SHARE conference, like the one in San Diego the week of August 13, is where mainframe enthusiasts hear about Platform Solutions, Inc., (PSI) .  The most recent presentation by the vendor of compatible mainframes had a familiar focus on technology and showcase customers.  It also had a few stunners.  For its large systems, PSI is changing hardware vendors from HP to NEC.  It is sharpening its focus on the range covered by z9 BC models.  And it now has a user with a workload that is right in the heart of a key market: utility billing.

PSI System64 ES
Platform Solutions System64 ES
The firmware rides on
Itanium-baseds server from NEC

PSI's firmware system runs on Itanium hardware, and until now that has meant HP iron.  No longer.  Within a few months PSI will be emphasizing Itanium machines that are built by NEC and sold in a NEC cabinet that has been reworked to show the Platform Solutions brand.  PSI is emphasizing the change by referring to its new offerings as System64 ES models, which it also calls the 6420 series.  This line can have up to 64 chips, meaning 128 cores.  It spans 225 to 2,000 MIPS in roughly 40 MIPS increments, and it can be configured to provide MSU ratings that are pretty close to any number a customer wants.  The System64 supports up to 44 ESCON channels, 15 FICON channels, 8 OSA channels, and 8 Fibre Channel adapters.

The low end of the PSI line is called the System64 DS, Liberty, or 5120 series, and it runs at 26 to 350 MIPS.  It can be configured to more or less match MSU ratings at the low end of the IBM z9 BC range.  The box has up to 4 chips or 8 cores and supports up to 32 ESCON channels, 16 FICON channels, 8 OSA channels, and 8 Fibre Channel adapters.  The Liberty is sold through T3 Technologies, which, depending on whom you ask, was either the biggest or second biggest source of Flex-ES systems during that product's lifetime.

The PSI users featured in this year's SHARE show are Cascade Natural Gas and Polk County, Iowa.  Polk was part of the presentation given by PSI at last winter's SHARE meeting, but since then it has moved from z/OS 1.4 to z/OS 1.7, putting it in the mainstream of local government big iron users.

Polk County is a small site by mainframe standards, the kind that grumpy users at the low end of the mainframe range say IBM isn't treating as well as it should.  The county is not a VM/VSE shop like many small mainframe customers; it's a z/OS user.  But its workload is heavily CICS and Cobol, the kind of job mix that lets even a small mainframe do a lot of production work.  (There is a bunch of ISV software running on the system, too.)

Polk County didn't need a big PSI machine, so it went for the a Liberty server.  Because Liberty uses a midrange server, T3, the vendor, can beat the price of an IBM z9 BC machine with comparable power.  The county's choice is based in part on its history and experience; Polk was formerly an Amdahl shop.  Nevertheless, Polk County uses IBM storage devices rather, so it's not at all allergic to buying machinery from Big Blue.  Still, the county has stuck with IBM software and it is striving to keep its operating environment within the range of supported software.  IBM might be able to put the county under a lot of pressure without losing the account, but there must be some uncertainly about that.

Cascade Natural Gas serves customers in Washington and Oregon.

Last winter, at the previous SHARE meeting in Tampa, PSI talked about sites using larger machines.  It got a box into the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire and another into Lufthansa Systems (the computer services company that provides services to Lufthansa's airline and other firms mainly in aviation).  These two users could hardly be more different.

Estee Lauder is an HP shop, using Superdome Itanium systems (rather than NEC Itanium hardware) to support the SAP applications environment that is prominent in its IT workload.  But Lauder's legacy payroll and inventory systems have never been replaced by alternative software, and they are the main reason the company needs mainframe capacity.  Lauder uses IBM Series z hardware for production, but believes it can consolidate on a single hardware platform by moving this work to PSI firmware inside its Superdome boxes.

The firmware that transforms a Superdome into a PSI System64, the brand PSI now uses for its big servers, makes this possible.  So, too, does the Lauder workload, which does not depend on, for instance, z/VM, which is not supported on PSI systems.  The 64 in the PSI brand name emphasizes compatibility with IBM's 64-bit z/OS (and with 64-bit Linux and Windows).  PSI systems also can operate in 31-bit XA mode to support older mainframe workloads.

PSI System64 DS
Platform Solutions System64 DS
The low-end version uses the same firmware
on Itanium-based servers from HP

While still technically in test mode when PSI gave its talk, Lauder runs IBM production software , including CICS and DB1, and also products from third parties including ASG, BMC, CA, Cincom, Diversified Software Systems (DSS), Innovation Data Processing(IDP), and Software Diversified Services(SDS).  The PCI platform provides ESCON, FICON, and OSA connectivity (in addition to the industry standard technologies like Fibre Channel that are features of the underlying Superdome equipment).  The processor talks to storage devices from IBM, EMC, and STK.

The SAP software that has become the heart of Lauder's production environment is a big reason for the company to consider the PSI offering.  IBM uses SAP, too, and runs it in Unix and Linux environments, not a traditional mainframe software setting.  Recently, IBM said it was going to consolidate a large collection of Linux servers onto mainframe hardware, but the mainframe hardware will be configured for Linux, not for legacy software environments.  IBM said this consolidation offers advantages.  Well, Lauder has more or less already done this, and would appear to agree with IBM about the best way to run SAP with only one exception, and that is the choice of hardware.  SAP users seem to get the best results in Unix, Linux, and sometimes Windows environments.

Lufthansa Systems prides itself on innovations, and putting in PSI servers certainly qualifies as an example.  The organization has a history of buying computing equipment from a diversity of vendors and believes that competition for its orders has given it economic and technological advantages that more than compensate for the effort it takes to manage diversity.  Lufthansa has been running PSI hardware in 64-bit mode for more than a year now.  Lufthansa says its PSI system has been very fast and extremely reliable, and in some ways the best big iron in its shop.  PSI, naturally enough, loves the compliment and is presumably very amused by the IBM-baiting.

PSI's success at Lufthansa is a bit surprising for one reason in particular: Lufthansa is just the kind of mainframe user IBM loves to brag about.  It is an innovator, developing new applications all the time, but it also respects its ties to the legacy of mainframe technology that is at the heart of the aviation industry.  Lufthansa is just the kind of outfit that could make waves by moving mainframe applications to Linux or Windows.  And that possibility may be one reason IBM has to consider broader issues even as it makes PSI jump over legal barrels.  In short, IBM really has to keep winning at this account, and in this case a victory might include acceptance that it might have to sacrifice hardware hegemony in order to preserve its role as the key supplier of software.

The Platform Solutions message to SHARE is that even though it is fighting to avoid being crushed by IBM's lawyers, it is still in contention.  Its two product lines cover the range of IBM's z9 from the entry level to the top of the BC Range, which means they also overlap the low end of the z9 EC range.  They enable the kind of environmental coexistence IBM offers with its Linux engines and in fact provide even more diversity because a Windows machine can live in the same skin as a mainframe.

But, as anyone in the Big Iron world knows, good technologies are no guarantee of success.  Mainframe users want a vendor to have staying power.  PSI has no problem demonstrating its perseverance, but only time will tell if it has the strength - and the litigators - required to survive.

Observers of the situation once thought PSI would become a part of HP if it emerged from its courtroom wars in satisfactory shape.  That doesn't seem as likely now that PSI is offering NEC servers.  PSI is trying to make it clear that its firmware is tied to the Itanium, not to the Itanium-based servers of a HP.  In other words, HP may have become a bit litigation averse and PSI needs a really devoted hardware vendor, not one with bad nerves, hence NEC for now and very likely the future, too, at least at the high end.  There's less pressure on all parties when it comes to the Liberty line, and the HP name is probably a boost in that market segment.

The platform vendor issue is really more a matter prospects have to leave to PSI.  Users know that at the end of the day, however things play out in the courts, IBM wants to remain their source of operating systems and middleware, and to maintain a cordial relationship.  After all, even if PSI wins over some users in this generation, IBM isn't quitting.  There's always the next generation and the one after that.

— Hesh Wiener August 2007

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