IBM Is at It Again! Suing Micro Focus for Its Mainframe-Like Services

06-12-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

IBM seems to be facing a challenge in the market as customers are jumping ship from its Mainframe servers and off-the-shelf software solutions and instead turning to competitors such as Micro Focus and Winsopia, forcing IBM to adapt to the changing market by offering new software solutions such as CICS to retain its customers, but now it seems IBM is also focusing on legal action, as it sues yet another company, this time for allegedly violating its intellectual property rights. Why is IBM suing Micro Focus, what makes this case similar to LzLabs, and is there something fishy going on with IBM mainframe systems?

Why is IBM suing Micro Focus?

Recently, IBM has launched a lawsuit against a tech company called Micro Focus, who offers customers numerous different software solutions, including application delivery systems, modernisation, AI tools, analytics, and cybersecurity systems. In the published lawsuit, IBM claims that Micro Focus has reversed engineered IBM's CICS mainframe service to create their own version called Micro Focus Enterprise Server. 

While IBM CICS services require the use of IBM mainframe machines, the Micro Focus solution allows users to use generic hardware, such as clustered Windows and Linux machines, via cloud interfaces. This eliminates the need for access to large, expensive mainframes, which often require dedicated support from IBM. Furthermore, the Micro Focus Enterprise Server solution allows users to directly transfer IBM mainframe applications without needing to make any changes

Now, IBM is not happy with this at all and fully believes that Micro Focus has reversed engineered proprietary systems to create their competitor product. Further evidence against Micro Focus comes from the fact that Micro Focus entered into contracts with IBM to gain access to developer tools (which would allow for reverse engineering) and that examination of Web Service Binding Files (WSBIND) provided by Micro Focus was mostly identical to those developed by IBM.

As such, IBM is seeking financial damages from Micro Focus for supposedly violating IP laws and is also seeking to suspend Micro Focus services that relate to IBM IP.  

What makes this case similar to LzLabs?

Only a few months ago, IBM sued another company, LzLabs, for supposedly similar practices. Simply put, IBM accuses LzLabs of opening a shell company called Winsopia to gain access to critical IBM software solutions so that it could be reverse-engineered by LzLabs. From there, the legal separation of the two companies could provide an element of legal safety as LzLabs can claim that it has no relation to Winsopia. But, key individuals common to both companies were identified in filings to Companies House, which alerted IBM.

But what makes the two cases very interesting is that both defendants have been involved with providing alternative mainframe solutions to customers. Furthermore, both defendants have aimed at using off-the-shelf hardware instead of dedicated mainframes that are solely controlled by IBM. This gives customers more options when designing systems and even helps with migrating from older mainframes to more modern hardware. 

Whether Micro Focus has indeed violated IP laws is up to the courts to decide, but it certainly is suspicious that Micro Focus had access to IBM developer tools shortly before designing their own solution. Having said that, it is only possible to create software alternatives by having access to the very thing you are trying to replicate. Thus, it could be argued that the access Micro Focus had to IBM proprietary solutions was simply to see how it worked. Furthermore, Micro Focus will have to retain some degree of similarity with IBM solutions (including file structure and format), as any migration tool has to read the same information and produce the same result. 

Is there something fishy going on with IBM mainframes?

With two companies now facing legal challenges, one must wonder if something is going on with IBM and the solutions it provides. It is quite possible that the market for mainframes and applications is dominated by IBM, which leaves customers with no real alternatives, and thus anyone creating a competitor product capable of migrating IBM applications can see massive financial gains. 

This may also be true when considering that IBM mainframe applications run on IBM mainframes, and this could see customers required to either purchase an IBM mainframe or subscribe for cloud access. When considering that mainframes can be in the region of $75,000, customers who can spend far less using a few x86 Windows Servers not only save massive amounts of money in hardware but software costs as well. Another area of concern is that many software systems currently in use may be running on ageing IBM hardware that requires replacement, and engineers being limited to IBM systems can be highly restrictive.  

So, it may be the case that many customers today who have historically used IBM mainframes are now looking for alternative solutions. But why exactly? We do not know; maybe IBM is charging higher rates, perhaps IBM is using unfair licensing contracts, or maybe IBM hardware struggles to advance as fast as off-the-shelf hardware. All of this is speculation, but one thing that can be said for sure is that many customers are clearly trying to move away from Big Blue, so instead of suing everyone, maybe IBM could identify why customers are trying to jump ship.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.