Enterprise Unix Roundup: Mainframes Go Retro Chic

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Jul 28, 2005


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Mainframes are enjoying a resurgence thanks to Linux and the open source movement. IBM and Unisys introduced two new offerings this week. For a simple and efficient backup utility, look no further than rsnapshot.

Amy Newman
Michael Hall

Fashionistas and other trendsetters know the adage, everything old is new again. But in technology, newer has always seemed the way to go. A few years ago, when we first heard of the pay-per-use models going into effect with mainframes we thought of poodle skirts and rabbit ears antennas.

This week, two systems vendors we follow came out with major mainframe announcements.

In the past three years, the open source movement and Linux have helped fuel a new lease on life for the mainframe. Although there's nothing inherently closed about mainframes, traditionally the boxes have been closed, proprietary systems. Until recently, if you mentioned a mainframe to most sys admins, you would be greeted with either a blank stare or a stifled yawn.

This is quickly changing, and mainframes are once again getting their due.

IBM, which is not so coincidentally the vendor that springs to mind when you say the word "mainframe," is working to change this. Although some pegged the arrival of Linux and the feeding-frenzy of commodity hardware as the death-knell for these systems, Big Blue saw it differently. It saw synergy, and in the early days of the decade inked deals to offer SUSE Linux across multiple server lines, including zSeries, where it developed its own Linux distro, Linux on zSeries.

Linux is well-suited for the mainframe because the mainframe's partitionable nature is similar to the clustered environment in which Linux thrives. In addition, as an operating system, Linux is not tied to a particular architecture and easily lends itself to a utility model. Because the two complement each other well, they are able to leverage off of each other's strengths.

"The reason interest in mainframes has been growing is their ability to run workloads like [Linux]," Bill Zeitler, the senior vice president IBM System and Technology said.

Linux is well-suited for the mainframe because the mainframe's partitionable nature is similar to the clustered environment in which Linux thrives.
Which brings us to this week's announcements: On Tuesday, IBM released its most powerful mainframe to date: the z9. The z9 is a descendant of the z990 (aka T-Rex) released two years ago. The new system runs five operating systems, including Linux. It can contain as many as 54 processors in one box and can process as many as one billion transactions in a day. A fully configured z9 will have 18 billion transistors. This is a marked uptick from the z990, which handled a mere 450 million transactions a day.

The mainframe was unveiled at an event sponsored by the IBM System and Technology Group, an event of such stature, according to Zeitler, occurs only once every five years. And the mainframe itself was no small undertaking. The $1.2 billion development effort was three years in the making and involved more than 5,000 engineers, developers, and security experts.

Mainframes, it appears, are once again big business for Big Blue. zSeries line sales are on the rise, Zeitler said, due in no small part to Linux. According to a 2003 article on Linux Planet, in 2001, 11 percent of IBM's new mainframes were running Linux under the hood; two years later, it was 17 percent. Today, 25 percent of IBM's Linux sales come from its zSeries mainframe line, according to Zeitler.

Unisys had some mainframe news of its own this week. Billing the initiative as "Mainframes for the Mainstream," its ClearPath line will get a makeover to leave the door ajar. Among the features, Unisys will offer pay-per service pricing and a policy-based provisioning option.

Its key enhancement is the addition of Java-based business solutions to run on ClearPath systems. System Access, an ISV that specializes in finance solutions, is already on board.

Rodney Sapp, director of marketing for ClearPath, describes the mainframe as, "a J2EE Windows, Unix, and Linux environment with the premium of a functional ClearPath container."

Perhaps. Though we suspect what will interest potential customers most is that the container premium was developed with J2EE in mind and can be partitioned to run Linux, Unix, or Windows. Unysis, which has no plans to move away from its proprietary operating system, is striving for best of both worlds.

And it's the best of both worlds that will save the mainframe from extinction.

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