New job for mainframes: Cloud platform

Mainframes are stable, secure and under your control -- perfect for anchoring a private cloud -- but where's the user provisioning?

cloud computing

Mention cloud computing to a mainframe professional, and he's likely to roll his eyes. Cloud is just a new name -- and a lot of hype -- for what mainframes have done for years, he'll say.

"A mainframe is a cloud," contends Jon Toigo, CEO and managing principal of Toigo Partners International, a data management consultancy in Dunedin, Fla.

If you, like Toigo, define a cloud as a resource that can be dynamically provisioned -- that is, allocated and de-allocated on demand -- and made available within a company with security and good management controls, "then all of that exists already in a mainframe," he says.

Of course, Toigo's is not the only definition of what constitutes a cloud. Most experts say that a key attribute of the cloud is that the dynamic provisioning is self-service -- that is, at the user's demand.

But the controlled environment of the mainframe, and the basis for much of its security, traditionally requires an administrator to provision computing power to specific tasks. That's the basis for the mainframe's reputation as old technology that operates under an outdated IT paradigm of command and control.

That's just one of the reasons why most cloud computing today runs on X86-based distributed architectures, not mainframes. Other reasons: mainframe hardware is expensive, licensing and software costs tend to be high as well, and there is a shortage of mainframe skills.

Big iron, meet cloud

Nevertheless, mainframe vendors contend that many companies want to use their big iron for cloud computing. In a CA Technologies-sponsored survey of 200 U.S. mainframe executives last fall, 73% of the respondents said that their mainframes were a part of their future cloud plans.

And IBM has been promoting mainframes as cloud platforms for several years. The company's introduction last year of the zEnterprise, which gives organizations the option of combining mainframe and distributed computing platforms under an umbrella of common management, is a key part of IBM's strategy to make mainframes a part of the cloud, say analysts.

The company set the stage 10 years ago when it gave all of its mainframes, zSeries S/390 and beyond, the ability to run Linux. While mainframes had been virtualizing for 30 years, since the introduction of the z/VM Virtual Machine operating system, once IBM added Linux you could run virtual X86 servers on a mainframe.

Over the last several years, some organizations have done just that, consolidating and virtualizing X86 servers using Linux on the mainframe. Once you start doing that, you've got the basis for a private cloud.

"You have this incredibly scalable server that's very strong in transaction management," says Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates, an IT consultancy in Needham, Mass. "Here's this platform that has scalability and partitioning built in at its core." Plus, the mainframe's strongest assets -- reliability, availability, manageability and security -- are the very characteristics that companies are most concerned about as they consider rolling out major business applications in the cloud, she says.

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