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New job for mainframes: Cloud platform

Tam Harbert | March 31, 2011
Mainframes are stable, secure and under your control -- perfect for anchoring a private cloud -- but where's the user provisioning?

Marist has had a research-and-development partnership with IBM for more than 20 years, and it helped IBM develop and roll out Z Linux, the version of Linux that runs on the IBM System z.

Today, Marist keeps the source code for Z Linux, handles the distribution for Z Linux, and runs an educational site, the Knowledge Center for System z, for IBM.

Marist has rewritten many X86-based applications to run on Linux on its two System z mainframes. The college runs 80 Linux servers, mostly handling administrative tasks, on one mainframe, and it has more than 600 Linux servers running academic applications on the other.

The college also runs other applications on an IBM P-Series midrange computer and IBM blades as well. But the mainframes are "the real engine," says Bill Thirsk, Marist's vice president of information technology and CIO.

Marist is getting big cost benefits from virtualizing on the mainframe. The college avoids purchasing extra server hardware, plus it saves on space, power and IT staff to manage the data center. It not only avoids having to pay extra for each application it adds to the mainframe, but also benefits from increased utilization of the mainframe, resulting in a very good return on assets, says Thirsk. He calls Marist's setup a cloud.

Skeptics would say it's not a cloud, because it has no user provisioning. But there is some provisioning going on: When students enroll to study computer science, for example, they are automatically provisioned with a mainframe partition, Thirsk says. And when they leave the school, he adds, "that's sucked back into the fold and re-allocated automatically."

Though critics might disagree, Thirsk says the fact that the resources are not provisioned by the user isn't important. "The fact is that if you wanted to change the policy where the student could just order it, it would come down to the same auto-provisioning routine," he says. "We do it more explicitly because it's as academic institution. The faculty decide what resources get used by students, depending on their courses."

Marist has advantages that make building a mainframe-based cloud easier. It gets an academic discount on the mainframes (although the price breaks aren't any larger than those available to other universities), says Thirsk. And thanks to the IBM-sponsored mainframe academic program at the college, Marist has a built-in, cheap source of IT labor with mainframe and Z Linux skills. "Where one CIO might have to hire very expensive professionals to run their data center, I have an entire internship program, and my labor's fairly inexpensive," Thirsk notes. "I only have three professionals to supervise."


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