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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Marist has advantages that make building a mainframe-based cloud easier. It gets an academic discount on the mainframes (although the price breaks aren't any larger than those available to other universities), says Thirsk. And thanks to the IBM-sponsored mainframe academic program at the college, Marist has a built-in, cheap source of IT labor with mainframe and Z Linux skills. "Where one CIO might have to hire very expensive professionals to run their data center, I have an entire internship program, and my labor's fairly inexpensive," Thirsk notes. "I only have three professionals to supervise."

Marist's cloud is starting to get some attention. "Four years ago, when I started talking about this, everybody looked at me like I was crazy," Thirsk says, but as the years have passed, others have taken an interest in Marist's computing environment. He notes that he has hosted lots of visitors eager to learn what the college is doing, including representatives from 21 companies and several universities last year. "We're talking to a college in the Middle East that has over 200,000 students," he says. "There's only one way to meet that load -- with a mainframe."

Capacity plus reliability

It was the lure of high capacity and high reliability that drove Transzap to move its cloud-based software-as-a-service offering from an in-house distributed platform onto an in-house mainframe in 2008.

A 100-employee company that provides software systems for the energy industry, Transzap offers a service called Oildex, an online financial digital data exchange and collaborative workflow system that manages invoices and other financial information. As a SaaS provider, Transzap is primarily concerned with reliability. "If we're down, [our customers] can't cut checks to their vendors," says David Marts, vice president of operations at Oildex.

As Transzap's business grew, so did the size of the Oracle database that supported its financial services.

As the company was evaluating ways to scale up capacity, Oildex had several significant outages, one of which left it down for more than eight hours. When the company tried to determine the cause of the failure, it got nothing but finger-pointing among its various hardware and software vendors. "We could not get anybody to own up to why it failed," says Marts.

Transzap compared the price of a System z business-class mainframe to that of the cluster of new servers it was going to need, and it found that the costs were about the same: about $550,000, says Marts. But the mainframe was more reliable, and Transzap liked the idea of dealing with just one vendor.

The deciding factor, however, was the fact that the mainframe ran Linux. "We're a Linux shop by heritage, slanted toward open systems wherever possible," says Marts. "So we could leverage our Linux experience and skill set." And Oildex has had no outages related to the mainframe.

Transzap's System z lease expires next year, and Marts plans to re-evaluate all options -- distributed and mainframe, particularly the zEnterprise that can combine both. "Because we've stayed on Linux, if we decide that it makes more sense to switch to a different platform, our customers will never know the difference. So we maintain control of our destiny," says Marts.

zEnterprise seeds the cloud?

Along with several concurrent developments, zEnterprise, could make the mainframe into a true cloud platform, says Susan Eustis, president of WinterGreen Research in Lexington, Mass. Just in the past several months, she says, IBM has improved Websphere, improved z/VM and adjusted its pricing structure -- all moves to make the mainframe more cloud-friendly, she says. Eustis thinks that IBM now has all the pieces in place to enable business units to self-provision a mainframe-based cloud.

At the very least, zEnterprise could change the traditional thinking about mainframes. "I think you'll start seeing the mainframe viewed in a different way," says Hurwitz. As mainframes begin to run more of the same software as other high-end servers and gain expanded service management capabilities, "people are going to see it as the high end of the server market as opposed to a world unto itself."

Frequent Computerworld contributor Tam Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy. She can be contacted through her Web site, TamHarbert.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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