What is one to make of IBM's mainframe Linux efforts? On the one
hand, the Meta Group proclaims that "Linux on the mainframe is a nice
place to visit, but that's all." Sun's Shahin Khan,
Chief Competitive Officer, makes no bones about it: "Linux on the
mainframe just doesn't compute." On
the other hand, Bill Claybrook, the Aberdeen Group's research
director for Linux and Unix, says, "Mainframe Linux is working
well for IBM.... I think they're almost surprised at how well
Linux on the mainframe is working out."
Why the difference of opinion? Well, Sun is an IBM competitor, and as for
the Meta Group, one financial analyst who didn't want his name on
the record said, "Meta hates IBM and IBM hates Meta, just read the
reports and you'll see what I mean."
And indeed, with comments like, "We caution users that current Linux
incarnations are relatively immature, as evidenced by the
interminable list of errors/patches on Linux providers' Web sites,"
one wonders at Meta's support for W2K and Unix, both of which have
their own share of patches, on Intel.
That said, are Meta and Sun right? Does Linux on the mainframe
(zSeries) have a future?
The View from IBM
One thing is certain: IBM mainframe Linux has a present. Linux on
IBM's zSeries isn't vaporware. It's alive, well and working on
mainframes today. IBM public relations has announced that 11% of new IBM
mainframe MIPS sold in 2001 were running Linux, and that doesn't
count the Linux installations on existing mainframes.
Getting to this point wasn't easy. According to Boas Betzler, IBM's
Linux "grandfather," getting Linux on the mainframe was a skunk work
project without official approval. Things have changed.
Now Dan Powers, IBM's VP of Linux Solutions, says that the "zSeries
has been a great success for us. Hundreds of customers have gone with
it." In particular, Powers sees people buying new mainframes to
"consolidate hundred or thousands servers on the mainframe. For total
cost of ownership (TCO), you can save a lot of money in people,
power, and licensing. You can also set up a new server in a day
instead of weeks and with the right equipment, you can start a new
Linux server on demand."
A server on demand? Dan Kusnetzky, IDC's vice president of system
software research explains, "IBM builds excess capacity in systems,
and you only pay for it if you use it."
Doesn't sound like this makes business sense? Think again, Kusnetzky
continues, "it's a very clever technique that HP is now covering with
SuperDome. You give the customers machines that have more processor
and memory than they claim. This makes an ideal way for them to give
Linux a try. It lets people try out Linux for cheap and keeps
customers with IBM at no cost." You see, Kusnetzky continues, "business executives love
people who make it easy. With the zSeries and Linux, there's no
capital improvement costs, it's just another service fee to give
Linux a try or to add another server. This has lead to large scale
deployments in the mainframe world."
And some deployments can be very large indeed. Sine Nomine Associates, a network integrator and solution
provider for the System/390 mainframes, have managed to run 41,400
Linux images on a single System/390 CPU. While this was more a stunt
than a practical application, it does point out that mainframes,
which can run multiple Linux virtual machines can be cost
competitive with Intel Linux servers and clusters.
Powers believes this is why the zSeries can work. He says, "What
I see the world moving to is virtual serving. We already have virtual
serving on the AS/400 (iSeries) and zSeries, and with VMware to do it on Intel (xSeries) for Windows and
Linux. What you'll see [is] a base platform that runs multiple OSes. It
will be a world not unlike networking where you used to have a lot of
hard wiring and multiple hubs and routers. Then Cisco came up with
the virtual LAN (vLAN) and that led to hub and router consolidation.
Five years from now, you'll see the majority of servers running Linux
While she might not go that far, Stacy Quandt, Giga Information
Group's Open Source analyst thinks that the "zSeries is gaining
momentum. You have customers focusing on server consolidation moving
to mainframe." She also sees IBM "wanting to sell WebSphere on Linux
on the mainframe to support Web Services."
The SuSE Success Story
Holger Dyrofs, director of sales for SuSE North America, is certain
that Linux on the zSeries has a future. He's betting his career on
it. He says that his firm has "a very good alliance with IBM" and
that they already have contracts with "several dozen companies using
mainframes" and they're "adding one to two more customers every week."
Besides providing the operating system, SuSE Linux Enterprise Server,
SuSE makes money from zSeries Linux with maintenance and support
contracts. These start at a minimal $4500, and depending on the
mainframe and clustering, SuSE's fees can go up to $150,000 on an
That's not a small business. Dyrofs says that, "for SuSE, right now
in the US, we get about 15 or 20% business from IBM mainframes. In
Europe, it's a little less, because we're stronger there in Intel
space." That said, "the IBM partnership has brought in the most
To make this happen, Dyrofs comments that SuSE has "worked very
closely with IBM with IBM doing quality assurance and delivering
technical porting help with the mainframe kernel and drivers." On the
business side, IBM, it's partners and IBM Global Services helps sell
SuSE IBM zSeries Linux and services."
It's not a one-way street though. Dyrofs thinks, "Linux on the
zSeries has been very important for its mainframe business. It's
given IBM the opportunity to grow the sector." Before Linux, he
continues, "the mainframe was stagnating, now it's increasing again.
What we see in the mainframe area is that the IBM sales people are
keen to sell Linux on the platform." Indeed, they "really push their
accounts to Linux," and in turn this "makes selling the mainframe
Now, Dyrofs admits that there are limitations: "You can run native
Linux on no more than a maximum of 15 instances." But, he continues, "You can have
hundreds of Linux servers running in logical partitions (LPAR)s on
top of a mainframe running z/VM." 90% of our customers are using z/VM
and they're happy with that and won't be changing to native Linux.
There are probably more SuSE mainframe Linux customers than either
its competitors, Red Hat and Turbolinux, have. SuSE was the first to bring
serious Linux to the mainframe. Kusnetzky thinks that "SuSE is the
most focused and it seems to be paying off for them."
Claybrook agrees, "SuSE is making contacts and contracts thanks to
the IBM mainframe. SuSE has been more aggressive than the other two
The other Linux vendors in the mainframe space lag behind SuSE.
Quandt believes that "IBM seems to be working more closely with SuSE
on the zSeries." This is more than just because "SuSE has been
involved with the zSeries longer." She sees "IBM developing a much
closer relationship with SuSE in the last six months."
Even so, Red Hat and Turbolinux aren't giving up on the zSeries.
Anita Kratka, Turbolinux's director of alliances and channel sales,
says, "We're all in the game." While Turbolinux has a lower profile
in the states, she adds "We've had growth in our revenue and in
shipments. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean markets do well for us
and North America is just getting its stride. In all of that, the
IBM partnership has boded very well for us. IBM is a name that
carries a lot of weight and many opportunities have come to us
through our relationship with IBM."
Sure, shhe says Tubolinux would "love to have the entire Linux mainframe market, but
we're getting our fair share." In particular, she thinks that the
mainframe relationship bodes well in the future.
As for SuSE? "I feel that our competition is the bias against Linux.
It's not as big a deal as it used to be, but it's still there. SuSE
isn't the enemy. Getting the enterprise message out is the real
Mike Hampton, vice-president of business development for Red Hat,
says that Red Hat has a similar model to SuSE's on the zSeries.
Despite observations that Red Hat might be getting more directly
competitive with SuSE and Mandrake, Red Hat isn't
fighting with SuSE and Turbolinux for zSeries customers. They're
content to let their product and service offerings speak for
What is interesting, though, is that while Hampton says Red Hat is
"not directly competitive with IBM. There is competition between IBM
and Red Hat in consulting and support," it's a tightrope since the
two also have a strong partnership. But, as Quandt observes, "The
relationship with IBM has benefited all of its Linux partners."
This competition might heat up in the future. After
all, IBM is both pushing three Linux distributions (four counting
Caldera on the Intel platform) while at the same time competiting
with them to some extent for support and service revenue. So far, the zSeries
Linux pie is growing fast enough for everyone.
What concerns Claybrook about Linux on the mainframe, indeed IBM's
whole Linux strategy, has been how the independent software vendors
(ISVs) will handle having to support a minimum of three Linux
distributions. "While IBM can and does port their middleware to all
four platforms under Linux," he says,"the question I've always wondered is will
the ISVs follow? They don't want to support or port their application
to any more platforms than I must." For example, he says, "some ISVs like
Computer Associates have products that are kernel dependent. They
must port to Red Hat, SuSE and Turbolinux, how much effort and money
will that take?"
While Claybrook sees that "IBM is spending all this money on these
incredible free development tools and web sites for developers. ISVs
don't want to port. In theory, you want to do one port and that's
What's the answer? While the Linux Standard Base will help, Claybrook doesn't think it's
enough. He says, "The LSB movement moves very slowly and it doesn't cover
everything." Claybrook sees a day when some ISVs might express a
clear preference for SuSE or Red Hat, and simply won't port their
mainframe programs to any other distribution.
Come that day, competition, and not co-operation for the sake of
enter the picture. But, be that as it may, what we can say is that
Linux on the mainframe is healthy and getting bigger. As for the
players and most analysts think it has a bright future ahead of it.
Meta's report, it won't be the first or last time that the death of
has been predicted. But mainframes, this time with a new Linux lease
life, are still standing.