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?

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Provisioning is the sticking point

But that lack of support for self provisioning is glaring. "The mainframe is very well controlled in most organizations, often to the point where it's locked in a room and people can't access it," says Julie Craig, an analyst specializing in application management at IT consultancy Enterprise Management Associates. "[Mainframe vendors] are going to have to do some developing to allow the self-service features of the cloud."

Reed Mullen, IBM's System z cloud computing leader, says that the lack of self provisioning is cultural, not technological. Companies could enable self-provisioning in mainframes either by using IBM's Tivoli Service Automation Manager or through custom development, he says.

And yet, he acknowledges that such implementations would still depend on the IT department -- users wouldn't have full self-service autonomy. Specifically, mainframe systems with self-provisioning options would require a user to submit a request by e-mail, and IT would have to approve the request before the resources were provisioned, Mullen explains. This reflects the "old habits" of the mainframe world, he says. But he also notes that any kind of cloud implementation, including those on distributed systems, would include an approval process.

"I know the perception is that the user doesn't have to bother anybody in IT, I just have to point and click to get my service," he says. But in every cloud scenario, he adds, there's some kind of approval process, a way to prioritize the requests, even though that process may not "require human eyes."

As for the licensing costs, Mullen says that IBM's current generation, System z, has a little-used "on-off" feature, whereby mainframe administrators can turn a processor core on for a limited time, paying short-term day rates for IBM software, rather than buying an expensive annual license based on the number of processor cores. "We are looking at taking advantage of this infrastructure to make it even more suitable for a cloud environment where there is a lot of unpredictable usage," says Mullen.

Iron cloud in its infancy

But it's hard to find an organization that's using a mainframe in a self-provisioned cloud computing platform. Some analysts say the talk of the mainframe as cloud is just hype. The technology may indeed exist, but the question is whether companies are actually implementing it, says Bill Claybrook, president of New River Marketing Research in Concord, Mass. "If they are not automating things, if they don't have a self-service portal, then it's not a cloud architecture, it's just a virtualized environment," he says.

One reason why it's hard to find a self-provisioned mainframe-based cloud computing setup may be because these are still early days in the development of cloud computing. "There is incongruity between what's out there in cloud today and what these big mainframes do," says Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Business units might use a credit card to buy some extra compute cycles for a one-time project, for example, but most companies would not run mission-critical, transaction-processing applications in the cloud.

The one cloud scenario that Murphy can point to that includes self provisioning is the model used by global outsourcing companies, where far-flung developers have the ability to automatically set up their own test and development platforms. Those aren't all mainframe-based, but Murphy thinks some of them must be. Under the old system, "the developer had to request operations to set this up and it would take weeks or months. Now in a matter of 15 minutes, he can do it himself," he says.

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