Big Blue Showcases Big Iron Solaris

Solaris running on the mainframe? It's far from a pipedream.

It was easy to miss during the pre-Christmas rush, but toward the end of the year IBM Corp. did something few -- if any -- industry watchers could have easily anticipated: it promoted a competitor's operating environment running on top of its System z mainframes. On the last day of November, Big Blue demonstrated Sun Microsystems Inc.'s OpenSolaris operating system running on System z.

"Corporations around the world have for years relied on the IBM mainframe -- which pioneered virtualization -- to run their businesses," said System z general manager Jim Stallings, in a statement. "The Solaris Operating System is similarly prevalent in data centers. It makes perfect sense to marry these two stalwarts in a virtualized mainframe environment."

Perfect sense or not, it probably struck some mainframe advocates as an unconscionable about-face of sorts: Big Blue trumpeting -- with its own PR imprimatur, no less -- a non-IBM, non-grassroots (albeit still open source) operating system running on Big Iron.

The move wasn't completely unanticipated; nor is it completely unprecedented: last August, IBM notched a deal with Sun to resell Solaris on its x86 hardware.

A Solaris x86 Harbinger

In retrospect, that deal now looks like it might have been the beginning of a beautiful relationship. At a PR event in August, Sun and IBM trotted out their big guns. Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz and IBM senior vice president Bill Zeitler took the stage, while Sun and IBM product managers were on hand (in some capacity) to brief folks and take questions.

At the time, some of those questions involved the possibility of Solaris running on top of the mainframe, although officials from both Sun and IBM demurred on this subject. As it turns out, those questions weren't misplaced -- just ill-timed.

So why did Sun and IBM decide to join up in the x86 segment? More to the point, what does that tell us about IBM's intentions this time around, i.e., with respect to OpenSolaris running on top of System z?

Industry watchers saw it as -- surprise -- a win-win for both Sun and IBM.

"To date, Dell and HP have captured more of the non-Sun Solaris x86 market than has IBM," wrote Illuminata analyst (and industry veteran) Gordon Haff, at the time. This is in spite of the fact that Big Blue's System x and BladeCenter offerings "excel" at higher vertical scale points, he argues.

"This deal, providing IBM the ability to offer customers fully-supported Solaris on x86 hardware, gives IBM an offer that is unique outside of Sun. As such, it gives IBM a leg up against the corresponding products from Dell and IBM."

Haff says that’s not all, because although IBM's agreement to resell Solaris for its x86 hardware might seem like all upside for Sun, it actually lets Big Blue turn the tables a little bit. "It also gives IBM a potentially powerful attack vehicle against Sun in coveted industries like financial services and telco where Sun has a strong presence."

The takeaway for Sun was less obvious. For one thing, the Unix giant distributes its Solaris x86 operating environment for free, so licensing revenues weren't necessarily a factor -- although Sun could expect to derive some support or maintenance revenues from the arrangement.

That deal, like IBM's promotion of OpenSolaris running on System z, had another very important upside for Sun, industry watchers say: it helped raised the profile -- and vouchsafe, to a degree, the ongoing relevance -- of Solaris. "[I]f one goes back even just two years, many thought a scenario whereby Solaris x86 would be offered in some form or other by all the Tier 1 OEMs yet another in a series of Sun fantasies," writes Illuminata's Haff. "Yet, whether we're talking Solaris for SPARC, Solaris for x86, OpenSolaris, or Solaris components like ZFS and DTrace, Solaris is very clearly not dead today. … Solaris may not yet enjoy the near automatic and universal support of Windows Server or Red Hat Enterprise Linux by hardware OEMs, but it's increasingly offered or acquiesced to by most in some form or other."

Big Iron Solaris

Sun achieved much the same thing in late November, when -- again, to the astonishment of many -- IBM promoted OpenSolaris on its bread-and-butter (and most lucrative) hardware platform.

The upside for IBM, in this case, is nothing short of spectacular, says industry veteran Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics. "[B]y hosting OpenSolaris … [IBM] would now be able to run somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 15,000 Unix applications on its System z mainframe!" he exalts. "Further, IBM System z architecture could provide enhanced services for the Sun operating environment, especially in the areas of security and virtualization."

There's a further wrinkle here, too, Clabby argues: in addition to the mainframe's best-of-breed security and virtualization services, Big Blue can make a compelling case that Big Iron scales better -- or is a better business continuity player -- than Sun's own hardware, even if OpenSolaris hasn't been specifically optimized for it.

"[M]ainframe architecture is highly reliable, resilient, and scales better than Sun's current T2 environment. What this means is that Sun customers could have access to even more headroom should they choose a mainframe for consolidation efforts without moving away from the Solaris OS."

At all events, Clabby points out, mainframe-based OpenSolaris seems to be off to a good start. After all, the same company that first helped IBM port Linux to Big Iron (Sine Nomine) also had a hand in the OpenSolaris port, and zOpenSolaris -- like zLinux -- is also hosted under the auspices of Big Blue's zVM virtualization environment. That helps give OpenSolaris on Big Iron an even more compelling patina of legitimacy -- and raises the possibility of still another mainframe specialty engine: an Integrated Facility for OpenSolaris.

Not that Solaris-on-Big Iron is a tough sell. According to Clabby and other industry watchers, Solaris-on-Big Iron could be a gold mine for IBM -- a potential mother lode, even -- if only because it substantially increases the depth and breadth of application solutions available for the mainframe -- as well as gives IBM an even more credible Unix-to-Big Iron migration story.

"[F]or IBM, the big opportunity is more work getting performed on its mainframe platform. With OpenSolaris on the mainframe, IBM wins Sun hardware business; increases the amount of work that can be done on the System z; and makes the System z an even more attractive enterprise server platform do to the influx of thousands of new Unix applications," Clabby points out.

The upside for Sun -- aside from the deal's obvious boost to Solaris' visibility -- is more obscure, however.

"For Sun, there is clearly an endorsement of their xVM strategy. But … it is really hard to find a solid revenue win in this for Sun. OpenSolaris on the System z has the potential to erode Sun scale-up and consolidation hardware business," he says. "OpenSolaris delivers no software revenue, but Sun may be able to build its own Solaris/OpenSolaris consulting/integration service business on mainframes -- and margins in that business would be significantly better than in hardware and potentially software."

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