IBM invites Linux fans to come play on its mainframe

IBM is offering Linux developers free access over the Internet to one of its powerful mainframes, the company said Thursday. The move is part of IBM's ongoing embrace of the Linux operating system and the open-source development community.

Dubbed the Linux Community Development System, the program offers free accounts on an IBM eServer zSeries mainframe. Users will be given access for 30 to 90 days, and can choose between a SuSE Linux AG or TurboLinux Inc. zSeries distribution of Linux.

IBM has partitioned the mainframe to divide it into thousands of "virtual servers," allowing users to work autonomously while sharing the same machine. "Multiple thousands" of users can work on the mainframe simultaneously, said IBM director of Linux for the zSeries, Joann Duguid. During one test on a mainframe, IBM had 41,000 Linux images running at the same time -- but standard usage won't be anywhere near that peak, Duguid said.

The 10-processor mainframe has 2.1 terabytes of storage. zSeries mainframes are priced starting at approximately US$750,000, according to an IBM spokesman, but pricing on the configuration offered as part of the community development system was not immediately available.

Duguid said IBM's motivation for the program is to spread awareness of Linux, spur application development, and show off its mainframe's capabilities. The program is attracting a wide variety of users, from "a student in Brooklyn who signed on to a Ph.D. in the Netherlands," she said.

IBM began opening up the mainframe to test users in early May, before officially announcing the program this week.

Longtime Linux enthusiast Sean McPherson has been kicking the tires of the mainframe for three weeks, and says he's enjoying the chance to see what a zSeries machine can do. McPherson is the director of operations for Louisville, Kentucky-based Xodiax LLC, a small, year-old data center and Internet services shop that relies heavily on Linux. He began working with Linux in 1992, and his interest in the operating system is both professional and avocational.

Professionally, he's interested in checking out the zSeries mainframe because Xodiax is considering purchasing one down the road. Right now, the company has more than half a dozen racks of Linux servers handling its clients' needs; the idea of consolidating that server farm onto one mainframe is attractive, McPherson said. But spending several million on a mainframe is "not a light purchase," he noted, and Xodiax is "still in the early research stages of looking into it."

In the meantime, he's also using the mainframe for his own projects and exploring it for fun. He has loaded his SQL (Structured Query Language) database onto the mainframe to run some tests, along with "every service you can fire up on the box," he said. McPherson has also been working with IBM's engineers on tweaking the mainframe's setup, offering user feedback and suggestions. So far, the engineers have been extremely receptive, he said.

"You can tell it's something they're enthusiastic about," he said. "You don't spend a billion on something out of charity, but I think these guys are really Linux enthusiasts who enjoy getting it to work right."

His only nitpick: McPherson said he would have liked to see Red Hat Inc.'s popular Linux distribution offered on the mainframe. In its absence, he's running SuSE's distribution.

Red Hat doesn't yet offer a Linux distribution for mainframes, Duguid said. She noted that IBM has an existing relationship with Red Hat, and said that if the Linux developer had a distribution for mainframes, IBM would likely offer it.

The Linux Community Development System could generate more than just favorable publicity for IBM, according to Bill Claybrook, research director for linux and open source at the Aberdeen Group Inc., a market research and consulting company in Boston. He anticipates that some users could become customers as they realize the advantages of the zSeries mainframe. Consolidation is the biggest boon, but Claybrook said mainframes running Linux also offer increased reliability and security.

"This (program) satisfies a wide range of needs that people have," he said. "It gives the people who have very little experience with Linux the chance to log on, get an account, play with it. ... At the other end, it gives serious users a chance to try out the zSeries."

IBM has become a noisy proponent of Linux. In December, Chief Executive Officer Lou Gerstner made headlines pledging US$1 billion to Linux development in 2001. Since then, the company has increased Linux support throughout its product line and focused on Linux as a key driver of mainframe sales.

"IBM and HP are the two leaders," Claybrook said, referring to hardware giant Hewlett-Packard Co. "I wouldn't want to pick the order, although IBM has had more press about their Linux program."

Compaq Computer and Dell are also serious presences in the Linux sector, Claybrook said, while he sees Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Linux strategy as "miniscule" and Microsoft Corp.'s as "nonexistent."

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