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SUSE-Linux-on-IBM-loaned mainframe becomes teaching ground

The University of Arkansas now has courses devoted to Linux on the mainframe. It also has a loaned z900 machine, which it shares, along with compute resources, with other schools.

While most computer science students learn skills on x86 servers, their counterparts at the University of Arkansas will now get hands-on experience on a new IBM system z900 running Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise.

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A national leader in mainframe instruction, the university (and its Walton School of Business) has taught Linux on the mainframe for five years and was rewarded for its efforts with a free five-year loan, including maintenance, of the System z machine from the Armonk, N.Y.-based computer manufacturer. The university ran pilot programs on the mainframe through the end of the last academic year and will use it for courses starting this week.

The university's fully configured system has 16 processors, 64 GB of memory and 7 TB of disk space. It contains enterprise-size databases donated by Sam's Club, Tyson's wholesale outlets and Dillard's retail stores, with the latter's repository containing 140 million rows. These unusually large databases, which are no longer used by the companies themselves, give students a rich, real-world experience as they learn how to work with relational databases and run SAP's business intelligence application.

Collaboration is the key to growth and increased usage.
David Douglas.
professorUniversity of Arkansas

"We are the only university in the world we know of running SAP with IBM DB2 on the mainframe," said Professor David Douglas. "We like to be a leader in enterprise computing in the mainframe environment," and believe students gain a competitive edge as the use of Linux and the mainframe continues to grow because of energy efficiency-motivated consolidations, he said.

Linux in the classroom
The university has four all-mainframe Linux courses, one that is an introduction to enterprise servers, another that is an introduction to enterprise transaction systems and two courses on data-driven decision-making for business school students, including one on SAP business intelligence, Douglas said. Using course materials that Douglas developed, the students learn systems management, application development and Web development using open source tools such as Apache, MySQL and PHP and how to run business applications such as SAP, he said. They also practice logical partitioning in Linux and System z, how to create virtual machines and eliminate physical ones in simulating a hardware consolidation, he said.<./ p>

"The combination of theory and practice is much better than just talking about it," Douglas said. "Hands-on experience is critical for students to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace."

The first to develop university-level Linux on the mainframe courses five years ago, Douglas decided to focus on Linux after concluding that it was a major computing platform and would continue to grow. And SUSE, which the university had been running on the previous IBM system 390 mainframe, was selected for the z900 because "it seemed to be the operating system of choice," especially for large users such as insurance companies and financial institutions, Douglas said.

Learning Linux on a mainframe is no different than on x86 machines, with essentially the same commands, Douglas added. The only difference is that students learn it on IBM's zVM virtualization platform.

Sharing the benefits
In its pitch to IBM for a new, larger machine, the university promised to share the z900 with other universities and create additional course materials for the mainframe. As a result, the educational benefits of the new mainframe will spread beyond the 45 computer science majors and those University of Arkansas students who use it as part of other classes to thousands of collegians worldwide. Any university that enrolls in IBM's and SAP's academic alliance programs is eligible to access the mainframe and its programs and courses, he said.

Douglas expects the number of participating universities and students to be large. At a recent academic congress, the university demonstrated the mainframe-sharing program and signed up nearly 1,000 institutions as participants, he said.

Although the university's computer science classes are small, Douglas projects an enrollment increase of 20% to 30% annually over the next few years as Linux skills increase in demand along with the use of the mainframe. Despite concerns about IT outsourcing, there is a shortage of trained IT staff nationwide, he added.

Douglas' future plans include continued improvement of the course materials and collaboration with participating universities on new ways to use mainframes in an academic environment.

"Collaboration is the key to growth and increased usage," Douglas said. "If we do that, our enrollment will continue to grow for the next several years at a fairly rapid rate."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Pam Derringer, News Writer . And check out Enterprise Linux Log.

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