Dell Goes After IBM Mainframe And Midrange Apps
April 9, 2012 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The road is littered with the smoking hulks of the upstart system companies and smaller software firms that have tried to attack the IBM proprietary midrange and mainframe platforms over the past four decades. And based on two key acquisitions last week, it looks like PC and server maker Dell is gearing up to take a more direct run at the System z mainframe and its baby brother, the Power Systems-IBM i platform.
Yeah, that ought to prick up more than a few ears in the IBM i market, and perhaps get more than a few vendors of application modernization tools for RPG and COBOL applications running on various AS/400 and successor platforms pondering the possibilities and the new competition they may be facing.
Dell has bought five companies since the beginning of the year, and three deals that have some tangential or direct relation to the IBM i platform went down last week. First, as we previously reported, Dell bought thin client maker Wyse Technologies for an estimated $1.2 billion, around four times the trailing revenues for the company in the past year. Dell is buying Wyse not just to get thin clients, but to have the endpoint and management software to manage those thin clients when they are deployed in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) setups, which is just a fancy way of saying that desktops are served up from virtualized servers running in the data center and streamed down to thin or zero clients. VDI is basically a tacit admission that a certain class of end users don’t need a full PC with lots of oomph, cost, and maintenance overhead.
That was Monday. On Tuesday, Dell ate Clerity Solutions, inching just a bit closer to home. Clerity is known to readers of the former Big Iron newsletter here at IT Jungle for buying the UniKix mainframe rehosting environment from Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle) back in June 2006. UniKix has been around for a long time and it is basically a clone environment for hosting COBOL applications running on IBM mainframes, including a clone of the CICS transaction processing system, the JCL language used to control batch jobs on those mainframes, and the 3270 Pathway software that allows for a clone of the mainframe’s green screen protocol to be supported on Unix, Linux, and Windows systems.
Clerity was founded in Chicago by Brandon Edenfield back in 1994, and the company got its start porting applications running on Hewlett-Packard HP 3000 proprietary minicomputers or Wang word processing workloads to other machinery.
The UniKix tools have their origins inside of French server maker Bull, and have passed through a number of hands before they made it to Sun and then Clerity, and in each case, the company owning UniKix hoped to take a bite out of IBM’s mainframe business. Dell is no different, and Clerity has been absorbed into Dell Services so its hosting and server businesses can take their own run at IBM’s System z platforms. Dell didn’t have to buy Clerity to do this–a partnership might have sufficed. But clearly Dell wants to have UniKix and the skills of the 70 people who work at Clerity focused on Dell’s top and bottom line and not with divided loyalties. There are over 1,300 installations worldwide using Clerity’s UniKix stack to run mainframe apps on various iron. When Sun bought UniKix in 2001, when it was taking its own run at the IBM mainframe biz with its high-end Sparc servers, UniKix was installed at 900 sites across 300 customers, and if the ratio holds today, then Clerity probably has 450 customers. Dell, unlike Sun, has a proper outsourcing business and could really need UniKix for its services customers, helping them move off mainframes and onto Dell X86 boxes.
To my knowledge, Clerity has not done a variant of UniKix for the OS/400 and IBM i platform, but clearly it could have done so, as Unibol, Jacada, Infinite Software, and ASNA have done to varying degrees. But with the smarts that Dell has now acquired, there is no reason why it couldn’t create an AS-Kix environment. (You like that, eh?)
Or, the increasingly acquisitive Dell could just buy Infinite Software or ASNA. Stranger things have happened, like Oracle buying Sun or IBM deciding not to after making a run at it.
On Thursday, Dell needed a little supper after a heavy breakfast of Wyse and a light lunch of Clerity, and so it ate Make Technologies, a company located in Vancouver, British Columbia that has created a set of application modernization tools called TLM Enterprise Suite that can be used to convert COBOL programs on mainframes or COBOL or RPG programs on OS/400-i boxes to distributed, SOA-style Java applications.
So, now Dell can rehost a mainframe application in UniKix or automate the porting of the COBOL or RPG applications on either IBM proprietary platform to Java running on Windows, Unix, or Linux.
Make Technologies was founded in 1999, and I don’t know by whom because the company, which has 100 employees, has been a bit obscure even if it has been growing very fast in recent years. (We’re talking about triple-digit, sustained growth between 2004 and 2010, with revenues up 177 percent in 2010 alone.) Since 2006, Make Technologies has been run by Bill Bergen, who came in to be president and CEO after a stint as president of Oracle Canada; Bergen was previously the British Columbia branch manager at IBM Canada. By the way, both Oracle and IBM are partners with Make Technologies, and both have legacy application customers who might be looking to get off one platform and onto another. Oracle probably uses the TLM Enterprise Suite tools to try to move customers off z/OS and IBM i platforms, and IBM no doubt does the same but only when it is about to lose a deal to a systems competitor. (Hewlett-Packard has a Modernization Factory operation, although it seems to make less noise than IBM’s Migration Factory, through which IBM did over 1,000 competitive takeouts and generated over $1 billion in Power Systems revenues in 2011.
The Migration Factory was based on the tools and experience of an outfit called Sector7, which was taking a run porting 30,000 HP 3000 customers to the iSeries back in 2002 when IBM stepped and acquired the company in September 2003 for an undisclosed sum. IBM’s porting focus was on converting Sun and HP Unix shops to AIX and Linux, and it seems to have not concerned itself so much with moving customers to the OS/400 platform of the time, much less the mainframe. (Yeah, I know.)
The TLM Enterprise Suite 6 product has a number of components, and it can be used to modernize/port applications as well as create new ones from scratch. The TLM Repository is a network sniffer that rifles through all of your applications to see what it is you have running your business. As best as it can, it looks at how your code has changed over time, how end users actually work through the code, and what data they need to operate. Now here is where it starts to sound magical to me. The TLM Analyzer part of the suite watches those end users and how their app screens pull up data, and what parts of the applications they don’t use as well, and then reverse engineers code specs and requirements, and the TLM Designer creates application models based on input from the TLM Analyzer. The TLM Code Generator kicks out new code based on the design specs, and boom, you have a multi-tier, SOA-style modern Java application that can run on any platform that supports Java. Presumably, the TLM Enterprise Suite could be made to speak PHP, Ruby, C/C++, or even ILE RPG and ILE COBOL if Make Technologies wanted it to. This is not clear from any of the specs I could find.
What is clear is that Dell is going after so-called legacy IBM platforms. So expect a sales call soon. And IBM, you might want to actually do something about this instead of letting Dell eat into your z/OS and IBM i businesses. Better assisting the many tool vendors who make application modernization tools for the IBM i platform–and who pay a lot of the bills around here at IT Jungle–would be a good start. Help them fight Dell, and you will be helping yourself. Dell expects to close both the Clerity Solutions and Make Technology deals by July, so you don’t have a lot of time.