IBM and Linux: the dinosaurs and the penguin

Popular mythology

Not long ago, commentators were referring to mainframes as dinosaurs, heading for extinction. IBM's mainframe revenues were clearly in decline and high-end Unix servers, including even IBM's own variety, were threatening its existence.

Things were looking decidedly grim for the dinosaurs. That was until the dinosaurs did a deal with the Linux penguin. According to popular mythology, this is how it happened.

A group of developers in one of IBM's German Labs decided to run Linux under VM, provoked by a member of the Linux community who wanted to see Linux run everywhere. IBM invented VM, which stands for Virtual Machine, in the 1960s to allow users to test new releases of the operating system without disturbing the current version. It developed over the years and saw a good deal of usage as an operation OS. VM was the easiest and fastest way of getting the penguin to run with the dinosaur.

Legend has it that several IBM executives got to know about the Linux project and advised the developers involved to desist. They didn't, it turned into a skunk works. They got Linux working and demonstrated the running of thousands of Linux instances on the mainframe. Because the educational world became interested, IBM executives changed their minds. Then, IBM looked at the Linux market and decided that it wanted in; suddenly mainframe Linux was part of the strategy.

Mainframe Marketing

IBM began marketing mainframe Linux in earnest this year and has seen a good deal of success. It has gone public on some of the deals.

Last year, IBM announced a deal with Telia, the Scandinavian Telco which involved replacing 70 web hosting unix servers (from Sun Microsystems) with a single IBM mainframe (model S/390 G6) hosting more than 1500 virtual Linux servers. Telia's motivation was cost-saving plus higher availability and reliability.

In April this year IBM announced a deal with Banco Mercantile of Venezuela, one of Venezuela's largest banks. The deal was worth about $3 million and involved replacing 30 Windows NT servers with a mainframe running a Linux partition. These servers are Internet domain servers, web servers and firewalls.
The second stage of the project will involve moving applications from Sun and Hewlett-Packard Unix servers into the Linux partition.

Later in the year, the Securities Industry Automation Corp. (SIAC) and its subsidiary Sector decided to move an application called Artmail to the mainframe Linux platform. Artmail is used by the New York Stock Exchange and the American Stock Exchange to deliver daily activity reports, as well as distribute billing and commissions to Wall Street stock brokers and traders. The application moved from 180 Sun SPARC servers to a single IBM mainframe.

This is the tip of the iceberg. With most sites that opted for mainframe Linux, server farms of small servers with low resource utilisation had grown up. The Linux mainframe consolidates these separate resources into an environment where efficient resource sharing is possible.

There may also be other factors involved in such implementations, such as implementing SAN technology, which have little bearing on Linux or its alternatives, but also can save money. Consolidation is the name of the game and Linux is usually part of the equation.

Mainframe Linux offers benefits beyond the zero licensing cost. It's a matter of operational overhead. In most environments, it takes roughly one person per shift to support five or six servers. If you consolidate tens or even hundreds of servers into one or two mainframes, the staff requirements diminish dramatically. You are also likely to get better availability and better resilience, you'll take up a lot less floor space and a whole host of system and network management tasks become a lot easier.

It is possible to do server consolidation without using mainframes and without using Linux, and it is also likely to save money - even large amounts of money. But, IBM has a big mainframe customer base which does not need to be taught about the ease of management of a mainframe, and many also have server farms. It is a ready market.

More surprisingly, IBM is now picking up new mainframe customers. In October IBM claimed to have shipped its 1000th zSeries machine, mostly with the help of Linux. The dinosaurs are back - accompanied by penguins.


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