Jan 26 ’15

The Penguin and the Mainframe: 15 Years Together

by Lowell Higley in Enterprise Executive

It all began on Dec. 18, 1999, whenIBM released a collection of patches and additions to Linux kernel version 2.2.3. This event started the relationship between the Penguin (aka Linux) and the mainframe, and was essentially the beginning of the System/390 kernel for Linux on System z. Then there was the official public announcement of Linux on System z and Integrated Facilities for Linux (IFL) in 2000, along with a whole ecosphere of software and tools to support Linux on System z produced by IBM and IBM partners. Many large and small enterprises have saved millions of dollars by adopting Linux on System z in the past 15 years.

Trouble in Paradise

Yet with mere months until the Penguin and mainframe celebrate their 15th anniversary, the relationship may not be where it should be. Let’s consider some facts. According to multiple surveys, 53 percent of mainframe customers own at least one IFL but only 41 percent of IFL owners are actually using them. Linux on System z adoption is low despite what might be expected of a 15-year-old technology with the marketing might of an IT industry leader behind it. In an effort to better understand the dynamics of the Linux on System z market, a series of in-depth discussions were conducted with Linux on System z advocates, opponents and everyone in between. From the tales of phenomenal success as well as horrific failure, four themes emerged.

“Immature and Unproven”

The most common theme was that Linux on System z is immature and unproven. This theme was very popular among those who had never tried Linux on System z. The comments here reflected the other three themes. In corporate IT, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about mainframes as well as the pricing model of Linux on System z, plus the fact that operating Linux on System z is an exception to business as usual. The remaining three themes, discussed below, help contribute to the perception that Linux on System z is immature and unproven.


The statement that the mainframe is misunderstood was mentioned in all but one or two interviews. Even at enterprises where the Penguin and the mainframe have been highly successful, there was a perception that the mainframe is misunderstood and causes friction between those who run the distributed platforms and those who run the mainframe. In some cases the interviewees believed that distributed teams see the mainframe as a black box with no transparency, even as a threat to the job security of distributed teams.

“Too Costly”

There has always been agreement that implementing the Penguin on the mainframe is not inexpensive. While the cost to run workloads in volume is cheaper in the long run, the cost of an IFL and all associated software in a single chunk is too high compared with the much smaller incremental costs of adding distributed servers. As a result, when some enterprises require an additional IFL, they opt to go the distributed route. It’s a lot easier to digest and justify a $10K expense than a $200K expense.

“An Exception”

Finally, the last and most common theme for the slow adoption of the Penguin was that running Linux on the mainframe is an exception. In many respects Linux on System z is the same as running Linux on other platforms such as x86; it’s just a different kernel. Or at least that’s what Linux on System z vendors like to tell themselves—and you.

In reality, there are some pretty big differences to running Linux on System z rather than on a distributed box. For one thing, there are a lot of required tools: tools to manage the hypervisor and the underlying hardware, plus tools for system-related functions such as monitoring, performance and resource utilization, backup and instance provisioning and management. Each hypervisor requires its own unique tools, and what works on the distributed platform most likely won’t work for z/VM guests. Therein lies the exception. Not only do enterprises have to purchase additional tools to manage the Penguin on System z, they also have to teach their staff how to use them.

Couples Counseling

Some of these themes can be more easily addressed than others. Focusing on the last three is likely to provide the biggest impact on helping convince organizations that Linux on System z is mature and definitely proven.

While it would be impossible to provide mainframe education to all distributed teams in companies that own mainframes, it is possible to provide tools and information to mainframe advocates on how to successfully start and finish a Linux on System z proof of concept. Mainframe advocates should seek guidance to help them engage their enterprises and complete proofs of concept. They should also leverage forums and papers to learn tips from those who have successfully adopted Linux on System z at their enterprises, as well as how to avoid obstacles and potential pitfalls from those who had unsuccessful forays into Linux on System z.

For some organizations, a $200K hit when reaching the limit of their current IFL is not easily justified. They consider off-platform solutions instead of paying this steep cost. The suppliers and vendors that enable Linux on System z need to address this cost issue, not necessarily by lowering the pricing but by making the pricing more digestible. It’s much easier for a manager to ask for budget in $10K blocks than $200K blocks. Some managers may even be able to spend $10K without higher approval, but that is usually not the case for $200K expenditures.

Finally, and most important, IT vendors need to stop treating the Penguin on System z as an exception. There is a common belief that extending distributed tools to the mainframe taints the purity of z/VM and the mainframe. Yes, there is a place for specialty tools to manage the care and feeding of the z/VM environment, but higher-level management applications need to extend across the enterprise. If IT vendors and enterprise mainframe teams want the relationship between the Penguin and the mainframe to thrive and grow, distributed tools need to be extended to the mainframe. Using the same tools across the enterprise not only eliminates objections to mainframe Linux but also removes cost obstacles. Otherwise, the Penguin and mainframe advocates will continue to run into obstacles and challenges from their distributed counterparts. This is not a magic bullet and does not guarantee cooperation and/or success, but it will go a long way toward success.

Let’s Get Married!

It’s been almost 15 years! It’s time to cement this relationship and propel Linux on System z to success in as many enterprises as possible. Mainframe professionals, engage your distributed counterparts and challenge your vendors to enable your enterprise tools on the mainframe. Mainframe IT vendors, engage with your customers and learn how your solutions and tools can connect them with their distributed counterparts. With support and, more important, action, the success and marriage between the mainframe and the Penguin can be assured.