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Linux on mainframes enters phase 2

The usually cutting-edge world of Linux goes retro this week as the oldfangled mainframe makes its presence felt at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
8 min read
Out with the new, in with the old.

In an inversion of the usually cutting-edge world of Linux, many of the announcements coming out of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo this week will have a retro flavor, as companies that specialize in software for the oldfangled mainframe move to embrace the comparatively new operating system.

Linux, a Unix clone that Linus Torvalds started as a student hobby 10 years ago, now has drawn support from companies far older than Linux itself--such as BMC Software and Computer Associates International--that sell software for IBM's decades-old line of mainframes. Linux has been able to run on mainframes for only a few months now, but the alliance is moving into a new phase as mainframe software companies add their support.

"Linux has been a big breath of fresh air for the mainframe," said Giga Information Group mainframe analyst David Mastrobattista. On a scale of one to 10, software companies' enthusiasm for mainframes had for years been down at one or two. "Now that Linux has arrived, I'd put the enthusiasm factor around seven or eight. It's definitely moved into high gear."

Gartner Group estimates that 70 companies employ Linux on mainframes for real-world use, with several hundred more evaluating the operating system. Financial services giant and Citigroup subsidiary Salomon Smith Barney is among those using Linux on IBM mainframes, an IBM representative said.

The mainframe push dovetails with a shift under way at the twice-annual Linux show, which has gradually acquired a businesslike tone and moved away from nerd-oriented features such as a protracted question-and-answer sessions with Torvalds. Two years ago, 10 percent to 12 percent of attendees were from companies with more than 1,000 employees, said Rob Schescherareg, vice president of sales, marketing and product development with show organizer IDG World Expo, but this winter it's up to more than 33 percent. Next year, he expects the figure to rise to 45 percent.

But attendance has been dropping with the bruised economy and diminished Linux hype. Last year's audience of 24,000 has dwindled to a projected 18,000 or 19,000, Schescherareg said. Other trade shows have been hit hard as well.

Though some technophiles use Linux on desktop computers, it's best suited for use on higher-end computers such as workstations for programming or mechanical engineering or networked servers that handle networked chores such as sending e-mail, recording sales orders or communicating with automated teller machines.

IBM leading the charge
IBM, largely the last company still selling the refrigerator-sized mainframe servers, is leading the Linux charge with its wholehearted adoption of the OS and a new Linux-only mainframe. Big Blue's Linux mainframe project began by making sure Linux would run on the zSeries line. Then, part of the $1 billion that IBM spent on Linux in 2001 went toward moving over higher-level software such as the DB2 database package and the WebSphere e-business software.

IBM has a powerful incentive for the movement: Rejuvenated software for its z900 mainframes means big money for Big Blue.

Bill Zeitler, head of IBM's four server groups, credits Linux and WebSphere for driving much of the 13 percent growth in IBM's mainframe revenue sales in 2001. "This is important not just because it was the only (server segment) that grew; it's the first time in 13 years that mainframe revenues grew at all," he said.

Competitors, naturally, find fault with IBM's strategy.

"What we see IBM driving is the open operating system on top of proprietary hardware and trying to lock customers into the old proprietary-hardware game," said Martin Fink, general manager of Hewlett-Packard's Linux Systems Operation. HP advocates Linux running on Intel servers, which are available from many companies.

As Gartner puts it, "No exit upgrade path for the hardware to the z900 exists," so those who use Linux on mainframes had better be committed.

On Wednesday, BMC plans to announce its first Linux mainframe products. Among the products that will arrive will be the Linux Server Management product, due in March and combining parts of BMC's Patrol and Mainview packages for managing Linux servers. The software will let administrators monitor servers and will notify administrators of problems. And BMC's Control-M scheduling software lets administrators tell servers how they should be spending their time.

In the first half of 2002, BMC also will release Patrol products for mainframes that monitor two similar products: IBM's WebSphere or BEA's WebLogic. Another Patrol product will let administrators control Internet services.

Meanwhile, BMC competitor Computer Associates has announcements of its own Wednesday. "We are going to be announcing we have 20 products at this point for Linux on the mainframe," compared with six just five months ago, said Nancy Newfield, vice president for marketing for CA's mainframe solutions.

CA's products will bolster its flagship Unicenter management software, its eTrust security products, its BrightStor storage products and its Advantage data-management software.

CA wouldn't discuss anticipated revenue from the expansion of mainframe software to embrace Linux. But John Pincomb, vice president of e-business solutions platforms, said, "We normally don't put development dollars where the money isn't."

Most Linux programmers use newer programming languages such as C or Java, but mainframe software often is written in Cobol. Acucorp will demonstrate its software tools that let companies run their Cobol programs on Linux on the mainframe, the company said.

Other Linux advances
IBM competitors also will be speaking at the show. HP Chief Executive Carly Fiorina will deliver the opening keynote and will discuss the planned acquisition of Compaq Computer, sources said.

Specific to Linux, HP will announce new Intel-based servers designed for the telecommunications market Monday, Fink said. The servers, a two-processor model due to ship in the first quarter and a one-processor model due in the second quarter, are designed to withstand the rigorous Network Equipment Building Standard (NEBS) specification that for servers that can withstand fires, power outages, freezing conditions and earthquakes.

HP also will expand its Linux services to include outsourcing operations, under which HP will run Linux servers for customers such as Nokia, help in moving software to Linux, and better help in planning and setting up Linux systems.

Compaq also plans to announce a sales alliance with open-source e-mail software seller Sendmail

. Sendmail will be integrated with Compaq's Intel-based ProLiant line of servers, the companies said. The move is an attempt to undercut more expensive e-mail servers from Sun Microsystems and others.

Competition is fierce in the Linux market, but cooperation also is stronger than usual since many products share the same foundation of Linux software. Cross-company cooperation will take at least two forms.

The Free Standards Group plans to announce improvements in the Linux Standard Base, while the Open-Source Development Lab funded by Intel, IBM, HP and others plans to announce an effort to codify exactly what telecommunications companies need in their servers.

"It's a huge business for Linux," said Aberdeen analyst Bill Claybrook of the telecommunications market. "Linux provides (telecommunications companies) with a much lower cost than Unix does. Over time, I see Linux replacing Unix" in that market.

Meanwhile, Red Hat, the leading Linux seller, will expand its Red Hat Network, which lets Red Hat keep track of customers' server software configuration and automatically send updates and bug fixes. There are 400,000 computers attached to the network, though Red Hat declines to say how many are paying customers.

For high-end customers, Red Hat will offer a "Red Hat Network in a box," said Paul Cormier, executive vice president of engineering at Red Hat. It's essentially a self-contained version of the product that lets a company use the network features within the company instead of over the Internet.

Red Hat began selling its mainframe version of Linux in November, joining competitors SuSE and Turbolinux.

Sun Microsystems long has had lukewarm emotions about Linux because it competes with Sun's Solaris version of Unix. But Sun's iPlanet e-commerce software runs on several different operating systems, and the company plans to announce that a major part of the suite will be available for Linux. The application server, which runs server tasks such as e-commerce shopping carts and stock trade order placement, is slated for release in the second quarter of 2002, said Deborah Andrade, iPlanet senior product marketing manager.

"The iPlanet (group) is certainly committed to continuing our cross-platform support," Andrade said, though adding, "Certainly, Solaris is at the top of our list."

Also augmenting software efforts will be Borland, which will announce Tuesday that it will bring its C++ programming tools to Linux later this year. The company's Builder 6 software will let programmers create software that will run on Windows and Linux, Borland said.

Hardware companies such as VA Linux Systems once lavishly sponsored LinuxWorld, but VA abandoned server sales in 2001 to become a software company. But some server sellers are sticking it out.

OmniCluster, which sells small servers that can squeeze into a single PCI slot within another server, will announce the Linux version of its Intel-based SlotServer 3000, said CEO Chris Fleck. And the company also will unveil a partnership with security software firm Checkpoint Software Technology under which Checkpoint sales partners will pre-install the software on OmniCluster servers in a product called SlotShield so that protective "firewall" computers can be built into an existing server, Fleck said.

And Sun will release its new $1,149 Cobalt Qube 3 server designed for those with home networks or small businesses that want to set up Internet services.

Another use of Linux has been in grouping many servers into a single supercomputer used by pharmaceutical, oil and gas, and other companies. Platform Computing will announce a new Linux product called Platform Clusterware to help squeeze more performance out of such collections of computers and to make them easier to manage.

On the smaller scale, Applied Data Systems will show use of Linux on non-PC "embedded" devices such as handheld computers. The company has software that can decode MPEG videos at 23 frames per second on a 640-by-480-pixel screen and that run several instances of Sun's Java software. The company is working in cooperation with Intel, whose XScale processor expected in February will run Linux, among other operating systems.

Linux is open-source software, meaning that anyone can see, modify and redistribute the underlying software. But it's not the only open-source package. Covalent Technologies, which sells enhancements to the open-source Apache will announce $18 million venture capital funding Monday in a third investment round led by Menlo Ventures with participation from Sequoia Capital and Granite Ventures.

And NuSphere, which sells an open-source database program will announce Monday a new product called PHPEdthat makes it easier to write the programming plumbing of Web pages that use the PHP language. Using PHP in combination with other software, NuSphere also will show the construction of an online telephone book Web service.