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SUSE zLinux shops unfazed by Novell Attachmate deal

Mainframe shops running SUSE as their zLinux distribution will wait to see in what direction new ownership takes the platform.

Mainframe shops running SUSE Linux on System z seem unperturbed by last month’s $2.2 billion acquisition of Novell by Attachmate, and will wait and see what new ownership means to them.

Introduced in 2000, Novell SUSE Linux Enteprise Server (SLES) for System z was the flagship Linux distribution for the mainframe, and enjoys about 80% of the Linux-on-mainframe market, according to Novell estimates. But while Novell enjoyed relative success with SLES for System z, momentum for zLinux overall appears to have stalled, and it’s unclear whether Attachmate will be able to rekindle interest.

The principal architect at one SUSE for System z shop, a health insurer, said he expects modest growth for his company’s zLinux environment as it moves its IBM WebSphere environment to Linux central processors, a.k.a. IFLs (Integrated Facility for Linux), and doesn’t care one way or the other that SUSE is under new ownership. A recent IDC customer survey found that between 20% and 30% of new mainframes go out with at least one IFL.

“I haven’t heard anyone make a comment about it either way,” he said.

That’s typical of mainframe shops, which tend to be fairly unflappable, said Cal Braunstein, chief research officer at Robert Frances Group. “If it works and they’re not being gouged, they’ll stay on [SLES],” he predicted. Generally speaking, mainframe shops don’t make a change “unless they really need to.”

Novell vs. Red Hat, mainframe style
However, questions have arisen in mainframe shops about whether to stick with SLES or move to Red Hat, the health insurer said. Red Hat introduced its zLinux offering in 2005, and it has come along nicely since 2008, said Braunstein.

“We have so many different operating systems -- Solaris, AIX, VMware, Red Hat, SUSE on Z …” said the architect. “If we moved to Red Hat on z, it’d be one fewer on the chart,” he said. Then again, he doubted whether consolidating operating systems would really change things for the better, management-wise.

Novell claims that its long, close relationship with IBM on zLinux ensures that SLES for zLinux benefits from tighter, more frequent feature releases than Red Hat.

For instance, IBM includes 100 to 180 new feature requests between a feature release and a service pack, and “we are typically the first Linux distribution to bring those new features to market,” said Meike Chabowski, Novell product marketing manager.

Further, both SLES and Red Hat Enterprise Linux require paid subscriptions, but SLES provides its Subscription Management Tool for free, whereas Red Hat Network is an additional charge.

Another potential differentiator between the two zLinux distributions is Mono, an open source implementation of Microsoft’s .NET framework, Braunstein said. Originally designed to take .Net to Linux, it’s also evolved to support the mainframe, Unix and even game console operating systems like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Conceivably, Mono on the mainframe could enable the use of the System z as a true consolidation platform, Braunstein said. “That’s always looked like an opportunity for IBM,” he said. Big Blue already took a step in that direction this summer with the introduction of the new zEnterprise 196 plus ZBX, which brings AIX/Power and x86/Linux under the mainframe’s purview. But the question remains – “what about Microsoft?” Braunstein said. Thus far, IBM has avoided answering that question “because it would take a lot of negotiation with Microsoft,” but going forward, Mono on System z “could handle a large number of Windows apps,” he posited.

Of course, whether that will come to pass is up in the air. For one thing, Mono is a relatively new offering on SLES for zLinux. For another, it’s unclear whether Attachmate and its financial backers will push to further productize that offering.

“If the investment bankers are looking for ways to maximize their assets, this is something they could potentially leverage,” Braunstein said. Then again, Attachmate is owned by investment bankers, and “it’s tough to know what the bankers are thinking.”

Same mainframe planet, different universe
Meanwhile, for other mainframe shops, the question isn’t so much “SUSE vs. Red Hat” on the mainframe, but “mainframe vs. x86.”

Despite growing their overall MIPS, one mainframer at a Fortune 500 manufacturing company using zLinux reported that his firm is migrating its Linux instances off the mainframe onto its VMware clusters. The cost of running Linux on VMware is about the same as running it on System z, he said, but it’s much easier to find open systems and VMware people than mainframers, he said.

Others haven’t even gotten that far. For example, the director of IT for a large U.S. retail chain said repeated attempts to put Linux workloads on the mainframe have gone nowhere. “We think about Linux on mainframe, but then we never get around to it,” he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director, at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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