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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 20th October 2009 15:22

Much ado about IBM's mainframe monopoly

Time to foster clones of proprietary platforms

Comment The business and trade press has been abuzz with the news that the US Department of Justice had opened up an investigation of IBM's monopolistic practices with regard to the mainframe market.

While it is always a welcome sight to see the DoJ at least interested in making sure monopoly power is not abused, it is a little late for someone interested in fostering an alternative mainframe market. (Well, maybe.) As usual, no one is thinking about the even tighter grip that Big Blue has on an even larger - and more economically powerless - group of customers we know as "i" customers, people who used to be known as AS/400 shops or even iSeries shops before IBM stupidly started just referring to the platform by the single "i" letter.

Without getting into all of the long-running squabbles in the mainframe market, IBM was being sued by Platform Solutions, a company that made a mainframe-compatible software environment that ran on Hewlett-Packard and NEC Itanium-based servers. IBM and Platform were at each others' throats in the courts as soon as it looked like Platform might start making some money at the end of 2006, and by July 2008 Platform had had enough and sold itself to Big Blue for an undisclosed sum, settling the lawsuits in the process. (This might be legal, it might not be. But it did happen, and under a Justice Department that had much blinder eyes than the current one.)

That left T3 Technologies, a company that had a reseller agreement with Platform, with no product to sell and before IBM ate Platform, it fired up its own lawyers, making complaints to the authorities here in the States and in the European Union. It goes without saying that Microsoft, that paragon of fair play in the marketplace, was a big investor in both Platform and T3 (and don't forget SCO, which is still limping along with its Linux-Unix lawsuit against Big Blue).

While Judge Louis Kaplan of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York - better known as Big Blue's home court advantage since Judge David Edelstein, IBM's nemesis for two landmark antitrust cases in 1952 and 1969, the settlement of which basically created the open computing business we know - had tossed out T3's case against IBM for not playing nice and letting it continue to resell Platform software to run IBM's mainframe operating systems on clone hardware, and T3 plans to appeal, none of this matters one whit.

What does matter, and what the Justice Department's antitrust lords ought to be looking into is the commercialized version of the Hercules open source mainframe emulation environment, which as I told readers at The Register a few weeks ago, has gone commercial and is no longer just a toy. Problem is, IBM has not offered a plan to allow this emulator to have officially sanctioned and licensed mainframe operating systems, and until it does, there will be no mainframe competition. Just the way IBM likes it. Just the way the i/OS platform and its many predecessors have been.

If the Computer and Communications Industry Association wants to do something useful, it should work with TurboHercules to stir up some noise about not being able to get z/OS, z/VM, and z/VSE licenses for the Hercules emulator running on x64 iron. TurboHercules is a commercialized version of the open source Hercules mainframe hardware emulator, and it just went commercial at the end of September. The problem is, there is no legal way to load an IBM mainframe license on Hercules, and the great suspicion, of course, is that some companies are doing it illegally as they want to port their mainframe applications to cheaper x64 iron.

You could probably get Microsoft to fund a lawsuit to crack open IBM's z/OS and mainframe middleware licenses, and you might even get Neon Enterprise Software, which makes a product called zPrime that allows certain work that normally would work on regular mainframe engines to work on cheaper specialty zIIP and zAAP engines, involved in the fight. (You can read about zPrime here and IBM's reaction to it there. And if you have flashbacks to the old Fast400 governor buster saga on the AS/400s, it ain't just you.) If Neon's software gets any traction in the market, you can bet the lawsuits will start a-flying.

If by some miracle of fair and honest capitalism - now, it ain't healthy to spit coffee out of your nose like that, so be careful - IBM is compelled to allow clone mainframes, the same smarty programmers who created Hercules should get fast to work making a little something I want to call - wait for it - iOlaus, an emulator of the Power Systems-i microcode that would allow the i/OS to run on top of it and on x64 and any other damned kind of iron. (Iolaus was the nephew of Hercules, and his side-kick.) And just for the fun of it, let's call the clone of the DB2/400 database xEna, which would allow RPG applications to run inside this iOlaus environment.

Now wouldn't that be a novel turn of events?

The people who talk incessantly about free markets don't really want any such thing. They don't want freedom, and they sure as hell don't want markets. They do want customers, and they want to keep them - and all to themselves if possible. Anyone who says otherwise is either a fool or a liar - or both.

The truth is, there is no simple way to legislate fairness in business, or else I would be clamoring for a little something I will call fair bazaars. (I think you can start from scratch on a new planet and maybe teach that one, which is more collaborative, more vibrant with lots of competition.)

Still, it is fun to see how this all works. Or doesn't. ®

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