Thursday, February 15, 2007

Which one is "bigger" -- Microsoft or IBM?

There's an IT industry debate that has been going on for a decade or more now, about whether or not "The mainframe is dead."

IBM certainly doesn't think so, and they are making a concerted n effort to get young IT people interested in mainframes and all they can offer. See, for example, these eWEEK reports: IBM to Spend $100 Million on Mainframes and Mainframers Learn New Tricks and Long Live the Mainframe.

It seems that part of Their campaign to rebuild interest in the field involves several new IBM Redbooks. The first of these is Introduction to the New Mainframe: Large-Scale Commercial Computing and here's part of the abstract:

Today, mainframe computers play a central role in the daily operations of most of the world’s largest corporations. While other forms of computing are used in business in various capacities, the mainframe occupies a prominent place in today’s e-business environment. In banking, finance, health care, insurance, utilities, government, and a multitude of other public and private enterprises,
the mainframe computer continues to provide the foundation of large-scale computing to modern business.

The reasons for mainframe use are many, but generally fall into one or more of the following categories: capacity, scalability, integrity and security, availability, access to large amounts of data, system management, and autonomic capabilities. This IBM Redbook is designed for readers who already possess a basic knowledge of mainframe computing, but need a clearer understanding of how these concepts relate to mainframe planning, implementation, and operation.

There are a couple of other associated Redbooks:

IBM has been providing IT products and services to the enterprise for many decades now (for at the very least three decades before I joined them in 1970). And with Service Oriented Architecture being all the rage these days in the enterprise architecture space, here's another IBM Redbook that's well worth reading: SOA Architecture Handbook for z/OS

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Well now, it's February 2007 and statements are being made that Windows Vista is "the biggest operating system ever written". Using what metrics, I wonder. (If I were a scalawag, I would say "biggest amount of hype" -- but as a mild-mannered reporter I resile from saying that!)

The z/OS operating system has its roots in OS/360, going way back to 1964, so there's decades of accumulated wisdom and knowledge in the z/OS operating, and in the associated IBM mainframe hardware architecture. In my opinion, for enterprise-scale computing the cruddy 32-bit and 64-bit Intel style hardware architecture are quite inferior, as are the Windows operating systems. I'll agree that Windows is getting better all the time, but so is z/OS (still being tweaked some forty years after its conception).

Another product range that is dear to my heart also comes from IBM: currently it's known as the IBM System i (with its operating system being called i5/OS). Before that it was called the iSeries, and before that the AS/400 (with operating system OS/400). Its progenitor was the IBM System/38 (with operating system call CPF - Control Program Facility), conceived in the early 1970s and announced in 1978. But its essential architecture is still very much alive and well as the System i, with major enhancements being made in each new release.

One thing that really irks me about the Wintel platform is the hiatus between 32-bit and 64-bit modes. I would like to use 64-bit Windows XP on my brand-new dual core AMD desktop system, but I'm simply not prepared to since I would have to go through purgatory due to lack of device drivers, and on top of that doubtless have to buy new 64-bit versions of applications (if they existed, and in many or even most cases they don't). I clearly recall that when the System/38 and later the AS/400 changed their internals to go from 32-bit to 48-bit and later 64-bit mode, customer applications were automatically adjusted by the system to run in the new mode without any application redesign whatsoever and a minimum of fuss. Superb! In comparison, the Wintel approach is quite horrid.

Anyhow, getting back to my original theme: Which one is bigger, Microsoft or IBM? Microsoft certainly is bigger in terms of overall annual software revenue, yet I'd say that IBM is bigger in terms of the considerable range of software products that it offers. Microsoft has a strong research arm and generates lots of patents annually, but I think IBM well and truly beats it with some ground-breaking fundamental physical research (and more patents annually).

To take an area of software where IBM has always been strong, namely database. Even venerable hierarchical database IMS is still in production, but around 1980 IBM released its first commercial relational database DB@, and it has gone from strength to strength. Not to denigrate Microsoft;s current versions of SQL Server (which are very competent indeed), but IBM's latest DB2 9 release (code named "Viper") with deeply integrated native XML support are quite superb. See for example DB2 9 for z/OS Roars to Life and DB2 9 pureXML Guide

I notice that one favorite part of IBM has reached quite a milestone. See the Special report: Celebrating 50 years of the IBM Journals

Since the first publication of the IBM Journal of Research and Development in 1957 and the IBM Systems Journal in 1962, these Journals have provided descriptions and chronicles of many important advances in information technology and related topics ranging from atoms to business solutions. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the IBM Journals, this report highlights a selection of significant papers published in the Journals, along with brief commentaries. The Journal editors chose papers which were very highly cited in the technical literature, described technologies of historic significance, or provided an important overview of a field.
This would make a scalawag (not me) ask what Microsoft was doing in 1957 ...

So, which one is "bigger" and how do you define bigness? Who cares, some of you will be thinking, but if you're interested why not have your say!

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