Virtualizing Linux on IBM Mainframe – Now more affordable than ever!

It’s hard to get a handle on IBM and virtualization, not because it isn’t active but  because it is difficult to identify a single strand or theme within its portfolio of products and services .  IBM’s high-level cross-brand initiatives are often bland in the extreme – designed to offend none of the IBM product groups.  And so it is we currently have IBM’s “Dynamic Infrastructure” a term with a nod to virtualization, but broad enough to include just about anything.

Part of the story is that IBM still has a substantive business in non-i86-based hardware. Its Mainframe (Currently known as System z) has had a hypervisor for 40 years. The System z  architecture is engineered for virtualization, and given the non-uniform memory access across the machine, the Mainframe scalability story itself is built on virtualization

For around 10 years, IBM has been pushing the idea of Linux on the Mainframe on top of the zVM virtualization technologies which provide hypervisor and management technologies over the core System z hardware. The “virtualization” branding has only recently been applied to this solution, although of course it has always been virtualized.

Mainframes are expensive. This is not a myth. For some time, IBM has had special pricing for its IFL (Integrated Facility for Linux) processor (which doesn’t run other IBM Operating Systems), and has not counted IFL processors when computing overall system software license costs on the machine. This meant that Linux on Mainframe was not quite as expensive as z/OS on Mainframe, but IFLs are still around $50,000 per processor when added to a standard Mainframe.

However we are in a downturn and Mainframe revenues are slipping across the board, at so at the very end of 2009 IBM introduced new z10 “Solutions”, low-priced packages to run specific workloads, one of which is the “IBM System z Solution Edition for Enterprise Linux”.  When viewed from the non-Mainframe world (distributed systems in IBM-speak), this looks a lot like a large multiprocessor server with an embedded hypervisor and management tooling.  It has from 2 to 64 IFL processors and can consolidate “hundreds” of server images into a single Mainframe.

Of course the IFL is a IBM z10 processor (a modified Power 6 processors), not an Intel processor, so counting CPUs and cycles isn’t necessarily going to give a good view on relative performance. IBM’s press material suggests they can “host more than three times the number of virtual server instances using z/VM versus x86 virtualization alternatives for some workloads”.

Prices start at around $200k for a 2-processor machine which is reputed to consolidate up to 30 Linux servers. There are licensing plans over 3 and 5 years. This does not include Linux licensing,which is available separately from Red Hat and Novell.

Applications may need to be ported to the platform.  IBM offers support to ISV companies through remote access to hosted z/Linux platforms.  In my previous experience as CEO of an ISV we took advantage of this facility and the software ported very easily. Java-based stacks (WebSphere/DB2 etc.) should work without porting.

There is obviously a lot of scalability – up to 1.5TB of RAM and 64 CPUs in a single box.  For large-scale consolidation, a single Mainframe may compete favorably with a number of medium-sized Intel servers and associated storage and networking.  But customers should be clear about Solution-specific upgrade pricing (storage and networking in particular) before getting involved with the Solution Edition, and also get commitments about what happens at the end of the 3 or 5 year lease cycle – will they be reverted to a standard Mainframe pricing model at that point?

Outside of the installed Mainframe base, there will be a requirement to introduce zVM skills into the organization to support the hypervisor and the management layer, and these are less readily available than those of other hypervisors and management tools.

The success or otherwise of this product in existing Mainframe accounts will be  determined by a complex mixture of factors that have more to do with IBM’s own structure than the nature of the product. In larger enterprises IBM tends to sell bundles of technologies from multiple IBM brands on rolling contracts.  The contracts are driven by a combination of what the customer wants, and the machinations of specific IBM product groups to get their products into the bundle.   If the account sales team is incentivised correctly (and it is harder to do this for a relatively lower-priced, lower-margin product like this Solution Edition), the product will be sold.

The most interesting aspect of this may be that in enterprise accounts it provides an IBM price point and feature benchmark against which to compare the consolidated offerings which are starting to emerge from competing vendors, such as the Acadia group (Cisco, EMC, or VMware) and HP/Microsoft.

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