"I know the perception is that the user doesn't have to bother anybody in IT -- that I just have to point and click to get my service," Mullen says. But in every cloud scenario, he adds, there's some kind of approval process -- a way to prioritize the requests -- even though that process may not "require human eyes."
As for the licensing costs, Mullen says that IBM's current generation, System z, has a little-used "on-off" feature, whereby mainframe administrators can turn a processor core on for a limited time, paying short-term day rates for IBM software rather than buying an expensive annual license based on the number of processor cores. "We are looking at taking advantage of this infrastructure to make it even more suitable for a cloud environment where there is a lot of unpredictable usage," says Mullen.
But it's hard to find an organization that's using a mainframe in a self-provisioned cloud computing system. Some analysts say the talk of the mainframe as cloud is just hype. The technology may indeed exist, but the question is whether companies are actually using it, says Bill Claybrook, president of New River Marketing Research in Concord, Mass. "If they are not automating things, if they don't have a self-service portal, then it's not a cloud architecture; it's just a virtualized environment," he says.
One reason why it's hard to find a self-provisioned mainframe-based cloud may be because we're still in the early days of cloud computing. "There is incongruity between what's out there in cloud today and what these big mainframes do," says Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Business units might use a credit card to buy some extra compute cycles for a one-time project, for example, but most companies wouldn't run mission-critical transaction-processing applications in the cloud.
The one cloud scenario that includes self-provisioning is the model used by global outsourcing companies, where far-flung developers have the ability to automatically set up their own testing and development platforms. Those aren't all mainframe-based, but Murphy thinks some of them must be.
Mullen agrees that the offshoring model is a good example. A platform-as-a-service setup like that "is perhaps the dominant usage of a cloud infrastructure in mainframe environments today," he says.
But as cloud computing matures and as new models of mainframes begin to offer more computing power at lower costs than they do today, more companies will experiment with the mainframe-based cloud. Hurwitz, for one, says many of her clients are looking into it, although none are ready to talk about it publicly. "It's something we're going to see a lot more of," she predicts.
The Very Early Adopter