Mainframe Penguins

The exciting news last week was the announcement from IBM of Emperor and Rockhopper—two Linux-based z Systems mainframe variants (and two species of penguin). That leaves 15 species of penguin left for IBM to choose names from (think king, Humboldt, little, or macaroni, for example). But let’s not get carried away!

For the very first time, it’s possible to own a Linux-only mainframe that comes with a range of open source tools including those for big data and analytics. With IBM’s recent figures not looking quite as rosey as they may have hoped, it looks like they are trying to tempt the distributed community to buy a mainframe. And to buy one that comes with all the power and reliability of z Systems and uses familiar open source tools. Sounds like a win-win.

The IBM LinuxONE Emperor is the top-of-the-range system and is based on January’s z13 hardware. The LinuxONE Rockhopper is the entry-level model and is based on the older zBC12 hardware. LinuxONE Emperor can run up to 8,000 Linux virtual machines concurrently. There is an option to use the Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) to operate virtual machines. That’s in addition to z/VM and PR/SM.

Previously, IBM has supported Red Hat and Suse Linux, but, from next year, it will support Ubuntu from Canonical. In terms of open source tools that will be on LinuxONE, IBM is hoping to include Apache Spark, Node.js, MongoDB, MariaDB, PostgreSQL, and Chef.

Interestingly, IBM is contributing more than 250,000 lines of code from its mainframe software to the open source community to open up the platform and drive innovation. Included in the code is the predictive analytics capabilities that constantly monitor the mainframe for unusual system behaviour and prevents issues from turning into failures.

In addition, IBM is creating a LinuxONE Developer Cloud with open access to the development community. They’re hoping that this will act as a platform for the creation, testing, and piloting of emerging applications. Lastly, IBM is introducing a new monthly subscription pricing model for these mainframes. The metered mainframe will be located in a customer’s data centre, and they will be charged depending on how much they uses the system, which is much like a cloud model. This financing option could dramatically lower the cost of entry for IBM’s mainframe systems.

Going back to IBM’s recent finances: unit shipments plummeted by 37.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014 (compared to the same quarter in 2013) for all its servers, including x86 Intel-based servers, Power-based servers, and mainframes. And server revenues dropped by 27.1 percent for the same period. I’m sure they must have felt that they needed to pull something out of the bag to try to turn things around financially.

For many Linux users, migrating to zLinux has always come with the added price tag of running mainframe software and employing mainframe staff. IBM is claiming that, in the right usage scenario, LinuxONE can offer significant savings over x86-based systems, suggesting that it will cost half as much as public cloud environments at scale, when the systems are used to their full potential.

Will this lead to more sales? Does this herald the last days of z/OS? Is this the best thing to happen to Linux since Linux on z Systems (previously Linux on System z)? Answers to these and many other questions will turn up over the coming weeks and years. Certainly, IBM’s introduction of a usage-based payment plan means that LinuxONE has a lower the cost of entry than you might expect. And it broadens the prospective customer base for current mainframe users—especially because those new users will be able to continue using the open source software tools they are used to.

I think it’s a brilliant business decision that must meet most of the requirements of whatever focus group they used to discuss the idea. Great thinking IBM.