This isn't the first time the company has tried to find new uses for mainframes. In the past, it has added chips to support specialty workloads such as Java and Linux applications. It has also enabled users to manage Power and x86 servers from mainframe consoles and introduced smaller "business-class" mainframes to attract new customers.
The next steps IBM is considering include making it easier for customers to run mobile and social networking applications on mainframes, said Doug Balog, general manager of IBM's System z mainframe business.
Such an approach would, for example, benefit banks that want to offer mobile apps but still want the power and resilience of a mainframe behind those apps, said Balog.
IBM is still figuring out the best way to do those kinds of things, but one possibility is to bring more of the company's WebSphere server software over to the System z. Another is to provide services and tools for porting social and mobile apps to the mainframe.
However, providing mobile access to mainframe data could present a problem, said IDC analyst Jean Bozman. "It's a platform that you want to be highly secure," she said.
In the near term, Balog sees "operational analytics" -- analyzing data in real time -- as a big driver of mainframe usage. Among other things, that could improve fraud detection or help companies identify upselling opportunities by, for example, analyzing the past behavior of customers who make purchases.
In the last quarter, the launch of IBM's EC12 system pushed the company's mainframe sales up 56%. However, IBM had seen declines in mainframe sales in the previous six quarters. Averaged out, Balog said, mainframe sales have had "three years of compound growth."
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.