The mass defection to PC networks is coming to an end as more and more companies realise the advantages of centralised mainframe-based systems with their sheer number-crunching power, security checks and data back-up.
Do you recall the days when business computing depended on mysterious mainframes hidden away in air-conditioned rooms and attended by the high priests of data-processing? Getting the machine to do something useful for you involved joining a queue of other contenders for the precious time of programmers. By the time someone got around to your request, you would probably have forgotten what it was or changed your mind. It is certainly unlikely that you would have tried to do it yourself - anyone wanting to use a mainframe terminal must first master the hieroglyphics of computer command languages. All but the techno-enthusiasts should keep well away.
Nor are the megaliths cheap to buy - a top-of-the-range machine can cost more than £15 million. Furthermore, traditional mainframes are unable to run industry-standard software. Once you buy one, you are largely at the manufacturer's mercy for software, maintenance and technical support - hardly a competitive market.
So it is not difficult to see why company bosses were so captivated by the PC. Not only did they gain finger-tip access to computing power, they could also choose from a vast array of competitively-priced industry-standard software. 'Financial directors and chief executives have read PC magazines and seen their children play on these machines at home,' says Peter Slavid, corporate systems business manager at ICL, the UK-based computer manufacturer.'They have said, "Why do I need to spend millions of pounds on IT when I can buy a PC for £999?" They equate the PC with the corporate computer and don't understand the difference.'
The expanding ranks of PC suppliers have encouraged this view, dismissing the mainframe as a dinosaur - if not yet extinct then soon to become so. Their arguments have gained credibility from the relentless advance of silicon chip technology during the past few years. This has enabled PCs to take on more and more complex tasks from video-conferencing to full-scale multimedia. Such facilities seem ideally suited to the flatter management structures, empowered workforces and devolved decision-making processes of contemporary organisations. Not only are PCs cheaper, they are also apparently more flexible and adaptable to a changing business environment.
The prospect of an end to the tyrannical days of unhelpful data-processing departments and monopolistic suppliers has proved irresistible. Small wonder many company bosses have been persuaded to abandon their mainframes in favour of PCs linked in local area networks (LANs), otherwise known as distributed or client-server systems. But it hasn't worked out quite as they had hoped. Many companies that have tried PC networks and distributed systems are now moving back towards a centralised mainframe-based system, says Slavid. Others - such as the Performing Rights Society(PRS) - have had to abandon entire projects, often at huge cost. The PRS wrote off £8 million for a disastrous experiment in distributed computing in 1993. Companies that transferred all their most crucial systems to PCs were aghast at the fault discovered late last year on Intel's flagship Pentium, the ultra-high-speed processor chip on which many of the latest desktop machines are based. Many began to think again about the vulnerability of the systems they were rushing to convert to PCs. Walter Zwick, chairman of SMI Systems, an IT consultancy, says: 'A lot of people have been disillusioned with systems that are distributed, client server and all the other buzzwords of the day.'
One reason for the problems with distributed systems is that they are much more difficult to manage. With mainframes, tasks such as backing up data and running security checks are all handled from the centre. On PCs, they are left to individual departments, which frequently neglect them. 'You can provide tools to perform these tasks till the cows come home,' says Philip Crawford, chief executive of Bull Information Systems UK. 'But people don't use them.' According to some estimates, up to half the data stored on PCs is not protected.
This is OK until something goes wrong, says Brian Dearing, vice president, European Network Services at Sterling Software. 'But if you fry a file on your PC, it's gone, whereas in the mainframe world there will be a full disaster-recovery plan so that only the minimum amount of work is lost.' As an increasing number of mission critical systems are transferred to PCs, the risk of poor security and back-up procedures becomes more acute.
Another problem with distributed systems is that they require duplication of technical support. If a user on a mainframe terminal gets stuck, someone at the centre can talk them through the problem on the phone while simultaneously viewing exactly what is happening on the screen. On a PC or LAN, however, support has to be provided by someone on the spot. In practice, this means that organisations now have an exploding number of PC support people, says Zwick. 'Often you find that each department in a business will have someone who spends half his or her time being, say, an architect or a lawyer, and the other half being a PC support person in hiding, because the department needs their expertise and there's no one else to provide it.' Thus the technical support costs multiply fast. Even training and software upgrades can be provided over the phone in the mainframe world.
Colin Beames, head of IT at Vosper Thornycroft, the Southampton-based shipbuilder, is one of many computer bosses who has decided that big machines are more cost-effective.'The theory is that PCs are cheaper to run,' says Beames, who has just bought a giant IBM mainframe. 'But the cost of managing open and distributed systems is quite high while mainframes are becoming easier and more economic.' His view is shared by Phil Reed, head of global services at London-based Standard Chartered Bank. Reed puts the annual cost per user of distributed systems at around US$6,000 'whereas our mainframe terminals cost less than $700 per user per year'.
Recent research by market research companies such as Newbury-based Xephon and International Technology group (ITC) of Los Altos, California supports these views. Xephon reckons PCs are twice as expensive as mainframes. ITC, which conducted a survey of 250 US companies last year, puts them at 2.8 times the cost, with networked PCs at $6,445 per user per year compared with $2,282 per user per year for people using mainframe terminals. One of the most worrying findings is the fact that fewer than 5% of corporations in the US effectively quantify or control expenditure on PCs and local networks. The picture is one of gross complacency and ignorance. 'PCs and LANS are not only the largest undocumented information services cost in most corporations, but the largest undocumented cost of any kind,' the report says.
Even so, distributed systems have become so fashionable that many people won't admit that they favour mainframes. 'Companies are very twitchy about their mainframes, and a lot don't want to talk about them,' says ICL's Slavid. 'The mainframe is not seen as politically correct at present and people have become quite nervous about publicly defending their decision to stay with it.'
The talk, however, about abandoning the old machines is gradually fading among many users, especially large organisations with huge databases or number-crunching tasks to perform. Mainframes are at the heart of systems running airline reservations, cash machines, railway timetables, supermarket checkouts, council tax statements, warehousing and distribution. It is very hard to see how such tasks could be run on distributed systems. In the words of Roger Stenson, head of IT at Norwich Union: 'You might be able to put the contents of a fleet of Minis into a juggernaut, but you couldn't necessarily carry a juggernaut's load in a fleet of Minis.'
The mass defection towards PCs is coming to an end, says Slavid.'Almost everyone has decided that they need to keep the mainframe. Where business applications are working efficiently at a low cost per user, they see little reason to get rid of them or move to expensive, new applications.' The cost of the transfer can be very high.
Other mainframe makers share Slavid's optimism. IBM increased shipments of mainframe processing power last year by more than 50%. 'Is this a sign of death?' asks Arthur Parker, director of IBM's Enterprise Systems Division in the UK. Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) also expects continued demand.'Our evidence is that lots of customers are planning 25% to 35% a year growth in their need for mainframe power,' says John Ryden, planning director, HDS Europe.
Much of the continued need for mainframes is based on its sheer number-crunching power. Vosper Thornycroft, for example, needs a system that can cope with around 100,000 transactions a day involving everything from finance and personnel to materials information and procurement. From the moment the user presses the key, a response must appear on the screen within less than 0.4 seconds - a performance target that couldn't possibly be met on today's distributed systems. Even greater performance levels are required at STC, which uses its mainframes in London, Hong Kong and Singapore for up to a million transactions a day from as many as 4,000 simultaneous users. Quite apart from response times, LANS couldn't possibly handle this number of users, says Reed. 'The average LAN would do well with more than 100 workstations, or200 if you were really pushing it.'
Mainframes also work well in cases where an organisation wants all its users to work from a single copy of a database - inventory, for example. Synchronising orders from a catalogue and ensuring you have not counted the same order twice becomes very difficult if the database is duplicated in several places. The single source for all corporate data is one of the mainframe's attractions for Richard Blunt, IT director of Coats Viyella Fashion Retail Division. The division has six factories, three warehouses, 60 shops, and numerous export franchises. Its computer system has to monitor the entire operation from manufacturing to electronic point-of-sale. 'We need the mainframe for big number-crunching work on operational systems which are spread across multiple sites,' says Blunt. 'The information has to be consolidated and made available to everyone. The mainframe is a great place to keep it.' Like most mainframe users, Blunt talks in terms of a mixed environment with mainframes and PCs each doing the tasks that they are best at: mainframes for data storage or heavy duty processing; and distributed systems for more innovative applications that might need lots of tweaking, such as marketing or customer service.
PCs are much more efficient for personal productivity tools including word processing and spreadsheet software. And they are ideal for casual users because of their ability to display graphical screens such as Microsoft's Windows. 'For the person who's doing the same thing day in, day out, a mainframe terminal is very effective,' says Beames. 'But if you are an occasional user, Windows helps because it guides you through.'
John Miller, information systems director at Leeds Permanent Building Society, sums up the view of most mainframe users: 'Our approach will be to continue to use the mainframe for what it does best.' In the case of the Leeds, this is high-volume storage of customer and account information. The need for centralised systems will become increasingly important in financial services as institutions move to exploit new distribution avenues such as direct operation and home banking, says Miller.
Meanwhile, mainframes are changing. Multiple boxes are being linked together to provide colossal processing power. Today's leviathans can handle up to 500 million instructions per second (MIPs), and can store ten thousand billion pieces of information. 'The newer version of mainframes, particularly the "database engines" with parallel processing, are of great interest because they are a cost-effective way of analysing large volumes of data,' says Miller. 'They can be used to analyse customer information and preferences to provide very targeted marketing information. As such, they are probably better than both PC networks and traditional mainframes.'
Today's mainframes are also being adapted to run the industry standard software that has long been a feature of PCs. Beames, whose latest IBM machine offers this facility, says it is a sign of things to come. 'All the mainframe vendors will have to move in this direction - it is the way the world is going.' At Bull, Crawford takes a similar view. 'In future, I believe we'll stop selling proprietary mainframes,' he says. 'No general purpose mainframes will be proprietary - customers will get the best of both worlds because they will have deep compatibility with their applications supported down to the PC level.'
Just as customers are mixing and matching machines with different power and features, so mainframe manufacturers are extending their portfolios of products down the line. An increasing number of sales are coming from smaller PC-based products and medium-scale machines. At Bull, for example, the mainframe business is down to around 15% to 17% of turnover compared with more than 50% five years ago and approximately 80% in the mid-'80s. And although distributed networks are here to stay, centralised mainframe-type controls and security procedures are almost certain to be introduced. Indeed, they are essential if distributed systems are to take on the most important business applications. That's one reason why Beames is hanging on to his power. 'We are making sure that systems are developed centrally. No matter what box they are going to run on, they have to be company-wide systems that benefit everyone. Otherwise there is a danger that you might build something that benefits one department and is detrimental to everyone else.'
But users will never go back to the frustrating old days of queuing for mainframe resources. Pandora's box has been opened, and now there's no putting the lid back on. 'People want access to the data they know exists,' says Ryden. 'Otherwise they'll say, "If I can't get at the data I'll do my own thing".' Few company chiefs can want that. Most have had computer anarchy for quite long enough.