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Mainframe emulator goes commercial

Hercules, son of z/OS

Roger Bowler - the creator of the open source Hercules mainframe emulator - has put together a company called TurboHercules to try to commercialize the decade-old program that he created as a "programmer's plaything."

Rather than go straight at the IBM mainframe base, which many a company has tried to do and ended up in court, TurboHercules is taking an oblique angle of attack on the mainframe base, positioning a commercialized version of the Hercules mainframe emulator as a platform for disaster recovery machine for working mainframes and their software stacks. So, if you are reading this, Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, IBM's New York lawyers, this is not about replacing existing mainframes, but about giving their software a place to run when the mainframe crashes. (I didn't think that happened...)

TurboHercules is co-headquartered in Paris, France, where Bowler moved after he left the United Kingdom, and in Seattle, Washington, in close proximity to the one big software company that has in the past taken a shining to anything that gave Big Blue some grief, particularly with mainframes. (Yes, we mean Microsoft).

The European angle could prove to be important inasmuch as the European Commission's antitrust authorities are showing a lot more backbone these days than their counterparts in the United States. EC regulators have held up Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems, and importantly for the mainframe market, they continue to look into IBM's behavior before and after its acquisition of Platform Solutions in July 2008. Platform had its own mainframe emulator running on Itanium iron and ended up suing Big Blue and being countersued, with IBM settling the matter by acquiring Platform.

Bill Miller, who is president of TurboHercules, was showing off the commercialized version of Hercules at Intel Developer Forum this week in San Francisco, a kind of coming out party of sorts, albeit a quiet one as the company is testing the waters. And perhaps Big Blue's patience as yet another company tries to squeeze in on its mainframe monopoly. But the company is not so much interested in antagonizing IBM as it is in finding a niche and making some dough on the substantial amount of work that Bowler and the current Hercules maintainer, Jay Maynard, have put into the program.

"Up until now, Hercules has been viewed more like a science project," explains Miller, who adds that the Hercules project has no clear idea how many of its open source mainframe hardware emulators are out there running on laptops, desktops, and servers.

The emulator is written in C with a smattering of assembly code where performance is crucial, and actually allows code, operating systems, and other systems software written for many generations of IBM mainframe hardware to run atop other servers. It is distributed under the Q Public License, developed by application development tool maker Trolltech for its Qt tools and since abandoned for the GNU General Public License. The QPL and GPL don't mix. The Hercules emulator can emulate the System/360, the System/370, the ESA/390, and the z architectures.

Hercules currently runs on 32-bit x86, 64-bit x64, and Itanium processors, and it can itself be deployed on top of Windows, Linux, Mac OS, or Solaris running on those three hardware options. Very old IBM mainframe operating systems that are in the public domain - including OS/360, DOS/360, DOS/VS, MVS, VM/370, and TSS/370 - can be legally deployed on top of the Hercules emulator.

But all the modern mainframe platforms - z/OS, z/VSE, and z/VM - have license restrictions that do not allow for customers who have versions of the code running on real mainframes to load that software atop Hercules - except for one provision in the IBM software license agreement, according to Miller, that allows for mainframe shops to load their software onto another machine in the event that the box on which it is licensed fails.

This is why TurboHercules is positioning itself as a provider of x64 and Itanium platforms suitable as emergency backup boxes for modern mainframes. Not as a box for supporting legacy (but not ancient) mainframe operating systems or new ones, but rather as a poor man's disaster recovery for a state or local government, for instance, that these days does not have the budget to buy two System z10 BC mainframes, much less one, but is sitting on older System/390 or zSeries mainframe iron and nonetheless needs some kind of disaster recovery iron if this old kit kicks the bit bucket.

TurboHercules obviously wants more than this, and like Platform Solutions and Fundamental Software before it, it can envision a commercial Hercules emulator being used in application testing and development, as well for demonstrating new mainframe applications. And not only for hard-core z/OS workloads, but also for the System z implementations of Linux. Which, by the way, run fine atop Hercules. While CentOS and Debian Linuxes have supported the z implementation of the Linux kernel, the mainframe variants of Linux from Red Hat and Novell are what nearly all mainframe shops use, and this code is available for free even if the installation and technical support for it is not.

Another possible use is to have TurboHercules boxes used to train newbie mainframers, rather than real mainframes, which cost millions to tens of millions of dollars. This would be particularly useful in China and India, where most of the new mainframe pros are being created as the old-time experts in North America and Europe retire.

Soon after incorporating in France, TurboHercules approached the top brass at IBM France and said that they were interested in "sitting down and figuring out where TurboHercules can operate," according to Miller. IBM has yet to respond to this inquiry. "We actually want to do this in the right way. We're not trying to go the PSI or T3 route, and maybe this is a little naïve on our part. We would like to find a license agreement under fair terms," Miller explains.

Of course, no one thinks for a minute that whatever Hercules emulators there are running out there in the world on x86, x64, and Itanium iron is out there running MVS 3.8 with its awesome 16 MB memory address space. There is very little doubt in anyone's mind that at least some of the Hercules emulators out there are running real and modern mainframe stacks, and they can do so because even with the heavy midrange penalty, an x64 server can deliver the performance of a midrange mainframe. We're talking something on the order of dozens to hundreds of MIPS, and to IBM, that's something on the order of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars over a many-year span for hardware, software, and services.

TurboHercules is very clear that it wants no piece of any kind of business involving the illicit use of IBM operating systems. "We are not trying to condone that market," says Miller, and perhaps the better word there is behavior, since market implies money. "There's no point in bringing down the wrath of IBM, and there's nothing to sell if it isn't done legally."

The first customer to put TurboHercules through the paces is an unnamed state government that had a $200,000 budget to implement disaster recovery for an aging System/390 mainframe. The state cannot afford to upgrade to a modern z10 box, much less get two of them for disaster recovery. It just wants to keep the System/390 running, which is long since paid for, pay its monthly software licensing and maintenance fees to Big Blue, and have an emergency box on which to load up its applications in the event that the System/390 fails.

So as a proof of concept - and for $50,000 - TurboHercules has set up a two-socket ProLiant box from Hewlett-Packard using the new "Nehalem EP" Xeon 5500 processors, running Windows and Hercules. About half of that dough went into the services required to set up the configuration and make sure the HP box was rightsized for the job. Over time, as TurboHercules gains experience, it will take less time to do the setup and its profits should rise at the same time as the overall cost comes down.

That's the theory anyway. It's unclear what portion of the TurboHercules system sale will be dedicated to lawyers, thereby eating up those tidy profits.

At IDF, the company demonstrated an HP Xeon 5500 box running Hercules atop Windows and supporting MVS 3.8 as well as HP Itanium box running SUSE Linux and then Hercules on top, with the z/Linux versions of SUSE Linux atop that. Miller said he had talks with server makers Dell and Stratus about supporting Hercules as well. ®

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