But earlier this month, Novell announced a free starter kit to simplify SUSE Linux on mainframe trials to relieve that burden.
The SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) Starter System for System z allows mainframe users to set up an SLES 10 partition from within z/VM, the platform's virtualization operating system. Compare that with a standard installation that could require going outside the mainframe firewalls or accessing a separate Linux or Unix system within the network.
Justin Steinman, a Novell marketing manager, likened SLES Starter System to a LiveDistro for System z.
Bringing Linux to big iron
Sine Nomine Associates, an Ashburn, Va.,-based research company, helped bring Linux to big iron and is at work on a project to do the same with Sun's Solaris, developed the software when working with Hewitt Associates, a human resources firm based in Lincolnshire, Ill. Hewitt wanted to test SLES on the mainframe, but doing so was onerous, said Mike Walter, the company's z/VM systems manager.
In Hewitt's case, the mainframe security group would not allow Walter and his team to connect the mainframe to a desktop CD drive that had SLES installation files on it.
"Once you open up a port between the mainframe and a CD drive on a laptop, anyone could load anything from that CD up to the host," Walter explained. "It's a justified paranoia. Their whole purpose is to protect the mainframe."
With the starter kit, however, the team downloads the installation files, which then go through a standard virus check. Yes, they could have done a virus check off a CD, but mainframe security policy rejected that idea.
For more on Linux on mainframe
"Your job is to protect the crown jewel, and nothing forces an antivirus scan on a CD," Walter said. "Are you willing to let anyone who works here upload that willy-nilly?"
Walter stressed that he didn't do any development on the Starter System, but served as an "inspirational thought leader" for the Sine Nomine project.
"We built this thing for our own use," said David Boyes, Sine Nomine's president. "There was a reaction at Hewitt Associates saying there had to be an easy way (to test SUSE)."
Boyes said that installing SUSE on the mainframe from z/VM has been a "perennial problem" and a major topic of discussion on the Linux mainframe mailing list. Typically users would have to download the operating system to a Linux or Unix machine within the network and then install it via the Network File System (NFS) protocol. Now users can download it to a PC or install it via an FTP session.
"What Novell thought was if they wanted people to experiment with SLES on mainframes, they had to make it easier," said Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics. "So they made it free from a download perspective and showed people what they have to do to get access to the download and test it."
The Starter System is not for production Linux applications on the mainframe but only for testing purposes. It is free, as is a trial version of z/VM from IBM. If users discover SUSE works well, they will still have to endure the standard install and dip into company coffers for licensing and support.
Novell SUSE Linux rules the mainframe
But according to Clabby, this is yet another way for Novell to strengthen its hold on the Linux mainframe market, which it dominates. According to Novell's Steinman, "three-quarters of Linux running on the mainframe is running on SUSE," while Clabby thinks it might even be more, a "stronghold 80% share or so."
The other approximately 20% is mostly taken up by Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) , which along with SUSE, is the only other Linux distribution that IBM recommends on System z. Other Linux distributions such as Debian and Gentoo are possible, but not as common.
"The really big picture is that the mainframe has changed in terms of emphasis," Clabby said. "In days gone by, the mainframe was just known as a COBOL application and transaction-processing machine, and most people still think of it that way. But it is also ideally suited to run modern workloads."