TCO: Linux delivers on big iron

When Joe Poole looks at his IBM zSeries mainframe, he doesn't just see a powerful system running traditional corporate workloads. He sees a distributed Linux environment that's starting to save his company big bucks.

"Running Linux on the mainframe is inexpensive," says Poole, manager for technical support at mid-Atlantic retailer Boscov's Department Stores. "We expect to see a two-year payback."

Those types of returns seem to be typical among the adventurous IBM mainframe users who have begun to shift applications from networked Intel Corp. servers to their data center workhorses. And analysts agree that for many companies, Linux on the mainframe can have a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than supporting applications on hundreds or thousands of distributed servers.

Although hardware and software are an obvious starting point, they're the smallest part of the TCO equation-only 20% to 23%, says David Boyes, chief technology officer at network consultancy Sine Nomine Associates Corp. in Ashburn, Va., who has studied Linux installations on mainframes.

Still, for Poole, hardware and software savings translate to pocketing an extra $100,000 per year that would otherwise have been spent on Intel servers.

So far, Exton, Pa.-based Boscov's is running its Web-based supply chain application and its Novell Inc. NetWare operations using Linux on the mainframe.

The savings Boscov's achieves from not having to buy those Intel servers "means in two years, we'll pay for the $200,000 software license" for IBM's Virtual Machine and Integrated Facility for Linux software, which is necessary for loading Linux on zSeries computers, Poole says.

Winnebago Industries Inc. saw its Linux/mainframe savings come in part from lowering its software licensing fees. Dave Ennen, technical support manager at the Forest City, Iowa-based recreational vehicle manufacturer, says his company bought an e-mail application that runs on the company's mainframe Linux partition and spent a third of what it would have spent for Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange on Intel servers.

Staff Savings

Personnel costs are a much bigger area for savings with Linux on big iron, since it takes fewer support staffers to manage a single mainframe than it does to manage multiple Intel servers. Staffing to support Linux on a mainframe represents 37% to 40% of the TCO, says Boyes.

Today, few mainframe administrators are versed in Linux, and fewer Linux mavens know z/OS, thus creating a skills shortage. But David Mastrobattista, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., says he isn't worried.

"Linux is an enabling technology to get mainframes back in the politically correct spotlight," Mastrobattista says. He argues that Linux administrators who can be trained on mainframe systems will be attracted to the field and that Linux will be embraced by mainframe administrators seeking new career challenges.

Ennen concurs, noting that his company "has an established discipline managing mainframes" and has only recently entered the Linux world. Still, Winnebago is stoked about the potential there. "We're waiting for the next mission-critical applications to appear on Linux," he says.

The final TCO segment that IT managers need to review, Boyes says, is facilities, which he pegs at 37% to 43% of the total operating cost.

While it's not the first thing people think about, Poole says it's obvious that a network of servers with their attendant switches, routers and hubs eat up much more space and consume far more power than a single mainframe. In fact, he estimates that the annual savings from lower electrical bills will pay for his company's annual Virtual Machine maintenance fee.

Running Linux on a mainframe "cut our electricity bill in half," he says.

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