Operating Systems

IT Sense: Everything Old Is New Again

I thought of titling this column “The one and the many,” a reference to the time-honored problem in philosophy that was first explored, I believe, by Plato. Those of you with a background in liberal arts might recall the basic concept, summarized in the analogy of the cave:

A guy is chained to the wall where he sees the shadow of a horse. Actually, it’s a shadow cast by a statue of a horse. The guy who made the statue had actually been outside the cave and had seen a real horse. For many of us, what we think is a horse is a shadow of a statue of the horse. But, when you say the word “horse,” something in your mind correlates the word with a category of forms that have the characteristics of a horse. This conceptual “form” is actually a purer definition of horse, and forms participate in a grander form, which is all of “being.”

End of philosophy lesson. What does this have to do with mainframes and technology? Perhaps more than you might think.

A war is shaping up between those advocating that we rack up shelf after shelf of 1u servers and apply a virtualization package such as VMware from EMC to create a simplified, more manageable image. The opposition, led by IBM, is touting the ability of z/OS mainframes to support Logical Partitions (LPARs), each containing an instance of a virtual server.

The end product of each approach is supposed to be the same. The problem of the “many” (administrative complexity, etc.) is resolved into the “one” (a single, more manageable form of infrastructure). Instead of having to get control of lots of horses, you can just wrangle one.

However, the lines are being drawn in the sandbox with each vendor saying that its approach offers more “oneness” than its competitor’s.

I decided to title this column what I did because the entire debate could be played to the Broadway song, popularized by the movie “All That Jazz,” titled “Everything old Is new Again.” Truth be told, we were running Unix servers in LPARs on our mainframes nearly 20 years ago. The technology is pretty well-tried and tested, and there’s no reason not to consolidate application and database servers into mainframes if you’re so inclined.

By contrast, virtualizing servers using products such as VMware still leaves you with lots of gear to wrangle and, from where I’m sitting, a rather unwieldy software stack to manage. We’ve used VMware in our labs for some time, and frankly, we’re still chasing down bugs. Score one for the IBM approach. you also get value with a mainframe-centric approach that you don’t get from the rack server virtualization story. That’s improved management over storage.

With the VMware server virtualization story, you need additional technology (usually more virtualization software) to make sense of the storage resources supplied to your apps. Pile on to the stack often more unwieldy software and pray that the “open systems” storage vendors will cooperate with the scheme. This is unlikely, given the business models of the open systems storage industry (of which IBM is a part, by the way): They haven’t made much progress with managing heterogeneous storage in a standards-based way.

That problem goes away with mainframes, where tools such as DFSMS exist to manage storage peripherals. There’s no equivalent in the distributed computing world. Marketing presses on both sides of the debate are busily printing “Total Cost of ownership” white papers, some of which will likely be out by the time this column hits the streets. And you can expect “my Solution Is Greener Than your Solution” papers to follow.

Basically, we’re revisiting the value proposition of open systems, though no one seems to want to characterize it this way. Did we err when we migrated off the mainframe to the open systems server in advance of Y2K? Did the hype about user-administered technology that was used to promote distributed computing fail to deliver on its promised business value? Were we duped by HP, DEC, and the other pioneers of distributed?

The questions are again relevant as companies work through the myriad issues of compliance, continuity, and cost in the current business world. Welcome to the ’80s … again. Z