"Linux on mainframes is strategically important to us because it can divide the server into thousands of virtual servers, each running an independent application. It's also giving [the mainframe] a cooler image in both business and universities, where we are building up a much-needed skills pool among students," adds Pete McCaffrey, IBM's director of enterprise servers, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
But Sun and HP executives view Linux mainframes as merely another option for users, one with limited potential to eat into their market share.
"Server consolidation in general is a good thing; it can lower costs and ease management," explains Herb Hinstorff, manager of the Linux and open-source program office at Sun Microsystems, in Palo Alto, Calif. "But server consolidation doesn't necessarily mean moving to a mainframe. Moving to a larger box of the same operating system environment is a better way to consolidate."
Hinstorff notes that Sun is "embracing" Linux by working to make Solaris interoperate with it, but is not planning to sell any hardware with Linux.
"We're seeing just the opposite of consolidation. More people are going to the 1-unit 'rack and stack' clustering environment for Web server reliability," says Mike Balma, HP's director of marketing for Linux systems operations.
Balma points to smaller servers' six-month turnaround time, which allows for a faster upgrade cycle than a mainframe's two-year design cycle as a big reason for that movement. Customers can also add servers easily when needed in one part of operations and reallocate them physically if need be.
There is healthy skepticism among corporate users and suppliers that replacing Unix and Windows-based servers en masse with Linux-based mainframes is in their best economic and technically strategic interests. Doubters cite the lack of a wide range of exploitative applications for the platform (see related article, right), few real-world examples that prove the alleged lower costs of ownership, and, according to one major Linux distributor, the lack of economic opportunity.
"There are a couple of reasons why we aren't going after [the mainframe] market," says Drew Spencer, CTO of Caldera, in Orem, Utah. "One is the [low] volume of those systems, so the money is not enough to justify us going into that space. Second, service and support on these deals, for the most part, is covered by IBM."
Caldera is convinced that the better volume opportunity for both itself and its users is with midrange servers, particularly those expected to emerge later this year around Intel's forthcoming IA-64 chip, according to Spencer. He thinks incorporating Linux as the front end of a three-tier architecture is a better idea all the way around.