IBM to sell Linux-only mainframe

The new model is the strongest indication so far of IBM's enthusiasm for uniting the comparatively new operating system with the decades-old business computer line.

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Stephen Shankland
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A new Linux-only mainframe model that IBM will announce Friday is the strongest indication so far of the company's enthusiasm for uniting the comparatively new operating system with the decades-old business computer line.

The refrigerator-sized machine running only Linux will be formally announced at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo show in New York next week and will begin shipping by the end of March, said Pete McCaffrey, director of IBM's zSeries mainframe group.

IBM hopes to lure new customers to the mainframe line with the system because it costs less than a full-fledged mainframe and doesn't require the usual high level of mainframe management skills, he said.

"I would say that most industry analysts right now are probably impressed with the speed with which Linux has been adopted on the mainframe," said Giga Information Group analyst David Mastrobattista. "It's only been on the mainframe for a little over a year now."

Indeed, IBM boasts that 11 percent of the mainframe computing processing power sold in the fourth quarter of 2001 was for running Linux jobs. This computing power, which can come either from new systems or from switching on idle processors in existing systems, is measured in the arcane unit known as MIPS (millions of instructions per second).

Because the Linux-only system doesn't need to support all the features that a regular mainframe needs, its hardware and software is simpler and its price is dramatically lower--not to say it's actually inexpensive.

A system with one of its four processors activated costs about $400,000, McCaffrey said. Prices for switching on the other CPUs, or "engines" as they're called in the mainframe realm, haven't yet been determined.

The system can run hundreds of versions of Linux, each a separate machine, and IBM believes customers will use it to replace larger numbers of other servers spread out across businesses.

Gartner analysts Mike Chuba and John Phelps say the operating system represents Big Blue's best opportunity to capture new workloads for its mainframe business.

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The most likely customer is indeed "the customer who is feeling the pain of having a server farm sprawl," Mastrobattista said. The system likely will replace Unix servers from Sun Microsystems and Windows servers from companies such as Compaq Computer, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard, running jobs such as sharing files, managing print jobs or delivering Web pages.

"I think it's a good move for IBM. They're trying to capitalize on the momentum the mainframe had in 2001," he said. IBM reported mainframe revenue grew at more than 10 percent for 2001 compared with 2000.

Sun, one of IBM's biggest rivals, has accused Big Blue of trying to take over Linux, which is developed by a cooperative effort spanning many companies and volunteers through the shared programming "open-source" philosophy.

"You can't put a billion (dollars) into Linux development without hijacking and owning it," said John Shoemaker, Sun's executive vice president for computing systems, at a news conference last week, referring to IBM's plan to spend that much in 2001.

But IBM couldn't do that even if it wanted to, McCaffrey said. "You won't see us take something like Linux proprietary," he said. "It's controlled and managed by open source."

IBM also will announce a version of its iSeries line of special-purpose servers that runs only Linux, McCaffrey said. That system, a version of the i820 with a starting price of $50,000, accommodates up to 15 virtual Linux systems and up to four CPUs.