Is the software mainframe metaphor apt, or off?

The increasing abilities of x86-based cloud computing are impressive, but is the "software mainframe" metaphor relevant?

VMware’s CEO, Paul Maritz, called his company’s cloud computing vision “the software mainframe,” at VMworld Europe two years ago. It's a metaphor that has continued to resonate in the market.

Traditional mainframe technology isn’t holding still, by any means, and mainframe giant IBM envisions a cloud computing future that includes, rather than replaces, its z/OS systems. 

We’ve already explored the technical similarities and differences between traditional mainframe and x86 virtualization architectures in a two-part article on SearchDataCenter.com. In this series of podcasts, we’ll focus on these evolving technologies from a cloud perspective, and delve into some predictions for the future of the market. In this podcast, we’ll focus on the software mainframe metaphor and whether it’s an apt description.

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer, sits down with Wayne Kernochan, president of Infostructure Associates LLC, an affiliate of Valley View Ventures Inc., and David Floyer, chief technology officer for Wikibon, to discuss these topics.

You can also listen to a podcast of this Q&A here:

Pariseau: What do both of you think about the “software mainframe” metaphor? Is it an apt description?

Kernochan: Saying that you want to achieve a software mainframe says that you want to achieve something exceptionally robust, exceptionally secure and exceptionally scalable. I think there is that potential in today’s distributed and scale-up architectures, so shooting for [a software mainframe] and pointing out that there are increasing capabilities in x86 architectures is great.

The problem is when you take it further and say, ‘x86 can take on anything that a mainframe or general scale-up system can take on.’ I think that in the near future, there’s going to be quite a lot of workloads assigned to clouds that don’t [support that view]. And I don’t think that you can say, at least in the near future, that x86-based cloud computing is going to catch up to a mainframe’s security or robustness.

I think the metaphor leads customers to expect too much, and it takes our focus off of where these [technologies] are going to be evolving to. In both [x86 and mainframe systems], I see a capability of cross-platform operation; systems are either going to be entirely distributed, but cross-platform, or you’re going to have some major scale-up servers. I happen to think that the scale-up servers are going to lead, while the mainframe sits there as the obvious candidate.

Floyer: I’d first like to define x86-based cloud computing a little bit more precisely. I believe that Paul Maritz’s vision is a hybrid cloud, which includes the private cloud as well as the public cloud. The software mainframe has two challenges – being both within and outside of the firewall. I completely agree that being outside the firewall is going to take longer, particularly on the security front, than being within the firewall. I believe [a large amount of deployment] will take place in the private cloud.

When you look at how VMware is evolving and [compare it to] the evolution of [virtual machines] on the mainframe, there’s a very similar path. There’s no reason why a single operating system, [like] VMware’s hypervisor, shouldn’t be able to provide the same level of security, availability and performance that traditional mainframe systems can provide. And I think the analogy of the software mainframe is a great one, since Maritz is putting his resources into making [VMware virtualization] the de facto standard for the future.

It’s probably a five- to 10-year journey before [x86] will evolve past the mainframes of today, but it is inevitable. And a key reason for that inevitability is Intel – its roadmap and how aggressive it can be in terms of scaling – as well as the ecosystem around VMware.

This was first published in April 2011

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