Not Your Dad's Mainframe: Little Iron

Steve Hamm

Mainframe computers have long been the province of IT druids in huge corporate data centers and goverment agencies like NASA and the CIA. Now, though, the mainframe is heading towards a much larger potential market.In IBM's latest effort to keep Big Iron relevant in a fast-changing computing world, it's retooling the technology for small- and medium-size businesses. The new z9 Business Class mainframe, released this spring, can be bought for as little as $100,000. Think of it as Little Iron. And small outfits who can't afford to buy a mainframe can pay by the drink by using IBM's on-demand services. All the things IBM mainframes can now do will surprise you. Example: As the server for Taikodom, a massively multiplayer online game being developed by Brazilian upstart Hoplon Infotainment. It's a company with just 50 employees. I don't want this to sound like an ad for mainframes (not my role or inclination) but this cool application caught my fancy.

Tarquinio Teles, CEO of Hoplon, managed to shake off Brazil's World Cup loss to France and come to the phone to tell me his story. He and three university buddies started Hoplon at an inauspicious time: mid-2000. The idea was to create multiplayer online games like Everquest. There's never very much venture money in Brazil for tech startups, but the dot-com bust made the situation even worse. The four pals worked on their project part-time initially, then in 2003 raised a bit of money from an angel investor--enough to create a real company with employees and all that.

Work on Taikodom (I forgot to ask what it means) started in 2004. The idea was to create a virtual universe where players can have a great deal of flexibility in what they do, how they interact with each other, and what happens in the place. Rather than having a few people team up and go on prescribed missions, players are encouraged to explore this slice of virtual reality as pilots or crew members of space ships, conquer worlds, or set up mining or other commercial operations. Teles calls the concept a Massive Social Game. Also, potentially, they wanted to be able to have anybody in the world interact with anybody else. In most massively multiplayer games, you can only fraternize with people who land on the same server as you do.

This leads us to the mainframe. Back in 2003, Teles and some of his friends attended a grid computing conference put on by IBM in Sao Paulo. They met up with some IBM technical wizards and talked over their dreams and were stunned to hear that the mainframe might be the best computing choice for a small company with a massive project like they had in mind. (They started with the idea of using Linux running on commodity Intel servers) IBM offered to host their application at its data center outside Sao Paulo and deliver the service on demand and metered. The company tried it in a public beta test involving 15,000 people last year and liked it. Because they didn't have to buy computing hardware and software, they were able to invest in programmers, increasing the staff from 35 to 50 recently. "We are only paying for what we use," says Teles. "For a startup like ours that's vitally important." Teles says in North America it would probably take $20-40 million and 200 engineers to build a game like this. But, thanks to the on-demand setup and Brazil's low cost of programming, they have only spent $3.5 million in 2 1/2 years.

Now Taikodom is back in the workshop for some improvements suggested by beta users. They wanted some structured missions, for instance. Teles hopes to go commercial in Brazil and Portugal by the middle of next year, then, if the game catches on, expand to North America and Europe. Asia is a possibility later on.

What's next? The corner drug store running applications on a mainframe? Probably not. But it's a real possibility for drug discovery startups and the like--companies with relatively small budgets and really big computing projects.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.