Back when I first started in tech, IBM was really the only major power in the industry. Their mainframe technology was dominant, and it had a lot going for it. It was very secure, incredibly reliable (for its time), and you leased it so that you never felt the full cost of the technology in one quarter or year. It fell off because it lacked flexibility and there was a huge push to put computing at the edges.
But things have gone full circle with the Web and cloud services; computing has become centralized again as the cost of computing at the edges just couldn’t compete with the economies of scale of cloud service. The opportunity arose to once again revisit the kind of solution the mainframe represented, but it couldn’t have the limitations that old mainframes had.
IBM stepped up to this challenge this week with LinuxONE, or Linux without limits, a blend of the things that made the mainframe great and the new flexibility requirements in configuration, software and financing. They are positioning their z Systems mainframe platform as the new power in centralized cloud computing platforms.
Using penguins as a theme (Emperor for their premier offering and Rockhopper for their entry level) IBM has bracketed what they see as the market requirement for system flexibility. Emperor provides the greatest flexibility, scalability, performance and trust for business-critical Linux applications. It has the greatest capacity range and no top end, so it can be expanded when and how needed. Rockhopper is an entry system that starts far smaller and provides a solution for a smaller company or business unit.
This tool has impressive breadth as both allow customers wide latitude in picking distribution, hypervisor, runtime, management tools, as well as their choice in databases and analytics tools. IBM has added Ubuntu to its longstanding support of RedHat and SUSE Linux distros. Initial coverage on hypervisors includes PR/SM, z/VM, and KVM. Languages include Python, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, R, Go, Scala, Clojure, PHP, Java, OCaml and Erlang. Runtimes include Node.js, Apache HTTP Web Server, Apache Tomcat, OpenJDK, LLVM, GCCGO, Zend and Erlang native compiler. Management options include WAVE, IBM Cloud Manager, UrbanCode, OpenStack, Docker, Chef, Puppet and VMware vRealize Automation. Databases include Oracle, DB2 LUW, MariaDB, MongoD and PostgreSQL. Analytics support includes Hadoop, BigInsights, DB2 BLU and Spark.
Equally impressive are the deployment options, which include single platform and multi-platform, on premises and off premises, and multiple mixed cloud environments, all using a common toolset.
But the most impressive is likely the pricing and payment options, starting with a pay-per-use model with no upfront payment needed, fixed monthly or quarterly payments and variable costing which scales (up and down) based on usage (title for the hardware in these environments remains with IBM). A second pricing model uses a 36-month fixed lease with 36-month usage contract but offers a right to return after one year. Finally, there is a per-core rental model where you can order what you need when you need it, add licenses as needed, decrease licenses or cancel with a 30-day notice.
Then we have the scale out and scale up capabilities, which show the true power of the offering. It supports up to eight thousand virtual servers in a single system with tens of thousands of containers, tens of thousands of concurrent users, and the ability to run test, development, and production in a single system. As you would expect, there is a significant focus on speed with IBM’s quickest processor, biggest I/O pipe, up to 10TB of memory and four levels of cache, all to deliver a sub-second end user response time at full load. Designed to run at 100% utilization, the LinuxONE platform is designed to spin up containers and virtual servers in minutes, automatically providing physical resources as needed in seconds through automatic resources provisioning and reallocation.
One thing that has remained constant over the years is that z Systems have always led the market with regard to security due to its unique architecture, and IBM has independent certification that z Systems, including LinuxONE, remain the most secure in the industry. Given the number and level of breaches enterprises have suffered during the past year, this level of security is a massive potential competitive advantage for IBM.
However, many of the recent breaches have been the result of targeted attacks on people with authorized access, so these benefits will still need to be heavily wrapped in strong security processes. But LinuxONE is doing its part with isolation at every level (applications, containers, virtual servers). It also supports full encryption of data and dedicated cryptographic processors.
Open Mainframe Project
Perhaps the part of this effort that most highlights that this is a new way of doing things for IBM and the mainframe is the Open Mainframe Project. IBM is committing to driving this open source project (with help from the Linux Foundation) through substantial funding and company resources, including IBM Linux Technology Centers, open source community contributions, academic initiative and training programs, and open access to mainframe community clouds.
Founding members of the Open Mainframe Project include ADP, BMC, CA Technologies, Compuware, IBM, L3C, Marist College, RSM Partners, SUSE, the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at University of Washington, the University of Bedfordshire and Vicom Infinity.
Proof of Concept
For proof of concept, IBM provided an example LinuxONE implementation: the Dream ALS Challenge. Using Docker on IBM z, this is a massive effort to create a cure for ALS and it is backed by Sage, Prize4Life, Origent, Pro-Act, Biogen, Helmholtz Zentrum Munchen, Biogen, and Lilly. The performance of this system was critical to this effort with analytics models running securely at 2x to 7x faster than competing platforms. The result is a massive collaborative effort allowing a huge number of researchers to work together to find solutions for this debilitating disease.
Old IBM Meets New IBM
LinuxONE is a huge play for IBM and fascinating because it pulls from the past and future market directions to come up with something unique and very powerful. It is a blend of old IBM, where the vendor took most of the technology risk because they believed deeply in that technology and are best at security, availability and performance, and the new IBM, which is focused on choice, flexibility and mobility.
What you look for in a new offering is something that is well-differentiated and has the chance to better address the needs enterprises and large businesses have in this rapidly changing world. LinuxONE is arguably one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen to combine the best of the past with the concepts of the future to create something new and compelling. I expect that, as with a lot of interesting products, many IT folks won’t realize they were longing for this until they see it.
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