New Job for Mainframes: Cloud Platform

Mention cloud computing to a mainframe professional, and he's likely to roll his eyes. Cloud is just a new name -- and a lot of hype -- for what mainframes have done for years, he'll say.

"A mainframe is a cloud," contends Jon Toigo, CEO and managing principal of Toigo Partners International, a data management consultancy in Dunedin, Fla.

If you, like Toigo, define a cloud as a resource that can be dynamically provisioned -- that is, allocated and de-allocated on demand -- and made available within a company with security and good management controls, "then all of that exists already in a mainframe," he says.

Of course, Toigo's is not the only definition of what constitutes a cloud. Most experts say that a key attribute of the cloud is that the dynamic provisioning is self-service -- that is, at the user's demand.

But the controlled environment of the mainframe, and the basis for much of its security, traditionally requires an administrator to provision computing power to specific tasks. That's the basis for the mainframe's reputation as old technology that operates under an outdated IT paradigm of command and control.

That's just one of the reasons why most cloud computing today runs on X86-based distributed architectures, not mainframes. Other reasons: mainframe hardware is expensive, licensing and software costs tend to be high as well, and there is a shortage of mainframe skills.

Big iron, meet cloud

Nevertheless, mainframe vendors contend that many companies want to use their big iron for cloud computing. In a CA Technologies-sponsored survey of 200 U.S. mainframe executives last fall, 73% of the respondents said that their mainframes were a part of their future cloud plans.

And IBM has been promoting mainframes as cloud platforms for several years. The company's introduction last year of the zEnterprise, which gives organizations the option of combining mainframe and distributed computing platforms under an umbrella of common management, is a key part of IBM's strategy to make mainframes a part of the cloud, say analysts.

The company set the stage 10 years ago when it gave all of its mainframes, zSeries S/390 and beyond, the ability to run Linux. While mainframes had been virtualizing for 30 years, since the introduction of the z/VM Virtual Machine operating system, once IBM added Linux you could run virtual X86 servers on a mainframe.

Over the last several years, some organizations have done just that, consolidating and virtualizing X86 servers using Linux on the mainframe. Once you start doing that, you've got the basis for a private cloud.

"You have this incredibly scalable server that's very strong in transaction management," says Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates, an IT consultancy in Needham, Mass. "Here's this platform that has scalability and partitioning built in at its core." Plus, the mainframe's strongest assets -- reliability, availability, manageability and security -- are the very characteristics that companies are most concerned about as they consider rolling out major business applications in the cloud, she says.

Provisioning is the sticking point

But that lack of support for self provisioning is glaring. "The mainframe is very well controlled in most organizations, often to the point where it's locked in a room and people can't access it," says Julie Craig, an analyst specializing in application management at IT consultancy Enterprise Management Associates. "[Mainframe vendors] are going to have to do some developing to allow the self-service features of the cloud."

Reed Mullen, IBM's System z cloud computing leader, says that the lack of self provisioning is cultural, not technological. Companies could enable self-provisioning in mainframes either by using IBM's Tivoli Service Automation Manager or through custom development, he says.

And yet, he acknowledges that such implementations would still depend on the IT department -- users wouldn't have full self-service autonomy. Specifically, mainframe systems with self-provisioning options would require a user to submit a request by e-mail, and IT would have to approve the request before the resources were provisioned, Mullen explains. This reflects the "old habits" of the mainframe world, he says. But he also notes that any kind of cloud implementation, including those on distributed systems, would include an approval process.

"I know the perception is that the user doesn't have to bother anybody in IT, I just have to point and click to get my service," he says. But in every cloud scenario, he adds, there's some kind of approval process, a way to prioritize the requests, even though that process may not "require human eyes."

As for the licensing costs, Mullen says that IBM's current generation, System z, has a little-used "on-off" feature, whereby mainframe administrators can turn a processor core on for a limited time, paying short-term day rates for IBM software, rather than buying an expensive annual license based on the number of processor cores. "We are looking at taking advantage of this infrastructure to make it even more suitable for a cloud environment where there is a lot of unpredictable usage," says Mullen.

Iron cloud in its infancy

But it's hard to find an organization that's using a mainframe in a self-provisioned cloud computing platform. Some analysts say the talk of the mainframe as cloud is just hype. The technology may indeed exist, but the question is whether companies are actually implementing it, says Bill Claybrook, president of New River Marketing Research in Concord, Mass. "If they are not automating things, if they don't have a self-service portal, then it's not a cloud architecture, it's just a virtualized environment," he says.

One reason why it's hard to find a self-provisioned mainframe-based cloud computing setup may be because these are still early days in the development of cloud computing. "There is incongruity between what's out there in cloud today and what these big mainframes do," says Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Business units might use a credit card to buy some extra compute cycles for a one-time project, for example, but most companies would not run mission-critical, transaction-processing applications in the cloud.

The one cloud scenario that Murphy can point to that includes self provisioning is the model used by global outsourcing companies, where far-flung developers have the ability to automatically set up their own test and development platforms. Those aren't all mainframe-based, but Murphy thinks some of them must be. Under the old system, "the developer had to request operations to set this up and it would take weeks or months. Now in a matter of 15 minutes, he can do it himself," he says.

Mullen agrees that that's a good example. A platform-as-a-service setup like that "is perhaps the dominant usage of a cloud infrastructure in mainframe environments today," he says.

But as cloud computing matures and as new models of mainframes begin to offer more computing power at lower costs than they do today, more companies will experiment. Hurwitz, for one, says many of her clients are looking into it, although none are ready to talk about it publicly. "It's something we're going to see a lot more of," she predicts.

Marist College, early adopter

Marist College is a poster child for IBM mainframes. The college is right down the road from an IBM mainframe manufacturing plant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (Last April, IBM announced it would build System z mainframes and high-end Power Systems servers there.)

Marist has had a research-and-development partnership with IBM for more than 20 years, and it helped IBM develop and roll out Z Linux, the version of Linux that runs on the IBM System z.

Today, Marist keeps the source code for Z Linux, handles the distribution for Z Linux, and runs an educational site, the Knowledge Center for System z, for IBM.

Marist has rewritten many X86-based applications to run on Linux on its two System z mainframes. The college runs 80 Linux servers, mostly handling administrative tasks, on one mainframe, and it has more than 600 Linux servers running academic applications on the other.

The college also runs other applications on an IBM P-Series midrange computer and IBM blades as well. But the mainframes are "the real engine," says Bill Thirsk, Marist's vice president of information technology and CIO.

Marist is getting big cost benefits from virtualizing on the mainframe. The college avoids purchasing extra server hardware, plus it saves on space, power and IT staff to manage the data center. It not only avoids having to pay extra for each application it adds to the mainframe, but also benefits from increased utilization of the mainframe, resulting in a very good return on assets, says Thirsk. He calls Marist's setup a cloud.

Skeptics would say it's not a cloud, because it has no user provisioning. But there is some provisioning going on: When students enroll to study computer science, for example, they are automatically provisioned with a mainframe partition, Thirsk says. And when they leave the school, he adds, "that's sucked back into the fold and re-allocated automatically."

Though critics might disagree, Thirsk says the fact that the resources are not provisioned by the user isn't important. "The fact is that if you wanted to change the policy where the student could just order it, it would come down to the same auto-provisioning routine," he says. "We do it more explicitly because it's as academic institution. The faculty decide what resources get used by students, depending on their courses."

Marist has advantages that make building a mainframe-based cloud easier. It gets an academic discount on the mainframes (although the price breaks aren't any larger than those available to other universities), says Thirsk. And thanks to the IBM-sponsored mainframe academic program at the college, Marist has a built-in, cheap source of IT labor with mainframe and Z Linux skills. "Where one CIO might have to hire very expensive professionals to run their data center, I have an entire internship program, and my labor's fairly inexpensive," Thirsk notes. "I only have three professionals to supervise."

Marist's cloud is starting to get some attention. "Four years ago, when I started talking about this, everybody looked at me like I was crazy," Thirsk says, but as the years have passed, others have taken an interest in Marist's computing environment. He notes that he has hosted lots of visitors eager to learn what the college is doing, including representatives from 21 companies and several universities last year. "We're talking to a college in the Middle East that has over 200,000 students," he says. "There's only one way to meet that load -- with a mainframe."

Capacity plus reliability

It was the lure of high capacity and high reliability that drove Transzap to move its cloud-based software-as-a-service offering from an in-house distributed platform onto an in-house mainframe in 2008.

A 100-employee company that provides software systems for the energy industry, Transzap offers a service called Oildex, an online financial digital data exchange and collaborative workflow system that manages invoices and other financial information. As a SaaS provider, Transzap is primarily concerned with reliability. "If we're down, [our customers] can't cut checks to their vendors," says David Marts, vice president of operations at Oildex.

As Transzap's business grew, so did the size of the Oracle database that supported its financial services.

As the company was evaluating ways to scale up capacity, Oildex had several significant outages, one of which left it down for more than eight hours. When the company tried to determine the cause of the failure, it got nothing but finger-pointing among its various hardware and software vendors. "We could not get anybody to own up to why it failed," says Marts.

Transzap compared the price of a System z business-class mainframe to that of the cluster of new servers it was going to need, and it found that the costs were about the same: about $550,000, says Marts. But the mainframe was more reliable, and Transzap liked the idea of dealing with just one vendor.

The deciding factor, however, was the fact that the mainframe ran Linux. "We're a Linux shop by heritage, slanted toward open systems wherever possible," says Marts. "So we could leverage our Linux experience and skill set." And Oildex has had no outages related to the mainframe.

Transzap's System z lease expires next year, and Marts plans to re-evaluate all options -- distributed and mainframe, particularly the zEnterprise that can combine both. "Because we've stayed on Linux, if we decide that it makes more sense to switch to a different platform, our customers will never know the difference. So we maintain control of our destiny," says Marts.

zEnterprise seeds the cloud?

Along with several concurrent developments, zEnterprise, could make the mainframe into a true cloud platform, says Susan Eustis, president of WinterGreen Research in Lexington, Mass. Just in the past several months, she says, IBM has improved Websphere, improved z/VM and adjusted its pricing structure -- all moves to make the mainframe more cloud-friendly, she says. Eustis thinks that IBM now has all the pieces in place to enable business units to self-provision a mainframe-based cloud.

At the very least, zEnterprise could change the traditional thinking about mainframes. "I think you'll start seeing the mainframe viewed in a different way," says Hurwitz. As mainframes begin to run more of the same software as other high-end servers and gain expanded service management capabilities, "people are going to see it as the high end of the server market as opposed to a world unto itself."

Frequent Computerworld contributor Tam Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy. She can be contacted through her Web site, TamHarbert.com.

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