One of the most effective contributions to ”greening” IT could come from what at first sight is one of the most unlikely sources – the mainframe.

Much of the hype surrounding green IT is coming from nimble-minded marketers who are searching for new ways to sell new technologies. They are associating them with hot trends such as virtualising IT infrastructures. But once “mainframe” is understood, it starts to score environmental points in a number of ways.

Mainframe’s relevance to global firms’ green thinking stems from its central role in global companies’ computing environments. Though not a headline-grabbing technology, it is the backbone of large enterprises’ business engines and it is being actively extended to support delivery of services via the web.

Research suggests that mainframes manage over 70 per cent of large companies’ critical data. “Big Iron” is the computing backbone and it offers efficiency, virtualisation and operational benefits that are reducing companies’ carbon footprints. These benefits will outlast ”green” advertising campaigns assembled in haste to sell new products.

First, advances in understanding what is under the IT bonnet in companies is revealing inconvenient truths. Research shows that distributed computing environments lead to server sprawl because capacity is being added in an unplanned way to meet business growth. This can leave resources under-worked and problems when growth falters and retrenchment is needed. With mainframe there is inherent central command that administers all system components in a common manner with extremely high availability, fewer resources to manage, fewer intrusion points, less network infrastructure and therefore fewer points of failure

In many distributed environments, server utilisation levels are considerably lower than those of mainframe which typically operates at far higher usage. The latest mainframe utilities can deliver near 100 per cent resource uptake. In contrast, based on a 24-hour window of observation, comparative values for Intel/Windows and Unix/Risc platforms were 5-10 per cent and 15-20 per cent respectively.

This ability to gain more for less is particularly important as computing in general is no longer seen as delivering capabilities alone – it is a cost that must be managed like any other. New generation mainframe tools are further improving system performance by taking over particular processing workloads. Researchers consider that over 60 per cent of the mainframe capacity provided since 2000 is being used to process new application workloads.

Mainframe architectures have been expanded to address 21st century developments such as service oriented architectures which help to knit together IT resources for the Web 2.0 age. CIOs are clearly taking mainframe’s ability to provide the business with optimum computing performance capabilities very seriously.

The second green argument is that the mainframe’s footprint is significantly smaller and its energy demands are equivalent to that of hundreds of servers: large organisations data centre power projections are considering not only if power projections are affordable, are they achievable? Companies using and nurturing their mainframe installations are by definition running consolidated IT estates, without the hype surrounding consolidation and virtualisation.

Virtualisation and partitioning of computers have been hot topics in IT for the last 18 months – a smart way to call up additional computing resources – but these virtual strategies have been the reality in mainframe for many years. Mainframes even enable multiple operating systems to run in partitioned computing environments; other platforms will need some years of development to attain that. Mainframe means smart virtualisation and more for less.

The third green argument is to look at the practical operational benefits that can be engineered around an enterprise’s daily operations and build environment-conscious operations.

Large companies, such as banks and insurance houses, are bringing the mainframe into their environmental and carbon footprint reduction strategies. Using mainframes and their associated storage and on-line viewing capabilities, these organisations are greatly reducing their use of consumables, such as paper, and reducing the carbon footprint through electronic document transfer versus more conventional means. This is a high profile, more visible and quantifiable benefit for companies to set alongside the “hidden” consolidation and reduced energy use arguments.

This isn’t a flag-waving exercise either. Market leaders in mainframe innovation tools such as CA are investing heavily in development programmes that help global firms to manage and innovate better using mainframe and distributed networks. And the recent surge in upskilling mainframe staff will help companies to optimise these resources even more effectively. New mainframe capabilities are coming not only from career mainframe experts but increasingly from a younger generation now learning its proven abilities.

These advances will reduce enterprises’ carbon footprints more effectively than investment in short term green tactics and technologies.

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