Case Study: zLinux Cuts Costs at Controller's Office

The state of Idaho has tapped a zLinux solution to achieve immediate ROI of nearly half-a-million dollars annually

If you think mainframe Linux is an over-hyped phenomenon, take a look at the state of Idaho. The government has successfully implemented Big Iron Linux to reduce its dependence on highly distributed Intel servers, paving the way for a transition from costly zOS application maintenance fees, and helping achieve positive ROI after cutting costs by nearly $400,000 each year.

How’s that for a mainframe Linux value proposition?

Like many Big-Iron Linux adopters, Idaho’s initial deployment plans were relatively limited in scope and ambition. For example, says George Judge, a deputy controller in the Idaho State Controller’s Office, his organization was looking for a way to streamline its highly distributed Intel-based infrastructure. “I was very concerned about the proliferation and the cost of the little … [Intel] boxes and the utilization of same,” he confirms.

As a side benefit, Judge believed he could tap Linux running on a zSeries mainframe to ratchet up quality-of-service and introduce features that couldn’t be replicated on Intel hardware. “I wanted to have a better recovery capability for our customer’s applications, and, of course, with the zLinux, when you recover the system, you’ve got everything back. All of the servers, all of the routers, all of the switches—all of the stuff, which is individual hard [Intel] boxes, is all virtual stuff when you do it on Linux.”

This led to other possibilities—including throwing off, or otherwise mitigating, the expensive maintenance costs associated with the use of some mainframe applications, says Judge: “Software costs seem to amount to 25 percent of my budget on an ongoing basis—that’s maintenance and software costs.”

These were important considerations, Judge allows, but what cinched the deal was the possibility of delivering a new mainframe Linux-based application that could substantially reduce the operational expenses and increase the efficiency of the Idaho State Controller’s Office. “We designed an application which allows people to view reports online in a .PDF format. That’s the first production application that we rolled out."

Before Idaho could get to Big Iron Linux Nirvana, however, it first had to take stock of its own readiness to do so. The reality, says Judge, was that the State Controller’s Office had no internal zLinux or zVM expertise, nor did it have a modern mainframe power plant on which to deploy Big Iron Linux. As a result, Idaho turned to IBM Business Partner and zLinux specialist Mainline Information Systems, which helped it purchase and deploy a new z800 mainframe system as well as implement zVM.

“We did not have any Linux background … [but] we had a real interest in wanting to do this and get our skills current, [because] everybody likes to learn new things,” says Judge. “We had [a previous] engagement with Mainline, and we used their services in a consulting manner when we installed VM, because we didn’t know anything about it. So we had them here for about four days to help us bring up VM and Linux.”

In this regard, says Conrad Vigo, a regional account executive with Mainline Information Systems, the Idaho State Controller’s Office was hardly unique. Many new zLinux adopters have no existing Linux or zVM skills, he says, but—in the case of zVM—beyond initial setup and some ongoing maintenance, this isn’t necessarily a constraint. “I haven’t found it [the zVM requirement] to be an issue. I think the Idaho Controller’s Office is a perfect example,” he says, adding: “We’ve got some [customers] who are in pilot mode. Some are in limited production, others are still trying to figure out how to use [zLinux], although they’re all interested. I can‘t say that I have one mainframe or Linux customer that I [have] talked with who hasn’t been interested in [zLinux].”

In the months that followed, Idaho got its IT staff up to speed on the use of Linux, and also sent three staff members to California for PHP training. The reason, says Marla Marchant, application development bureau chief for the Idaho State Controller’s Office, was that her organization’s new zLinux-based Web publishing system would have to be written entirely in PHP. The risks were great, she concedes, but so were the rewards. Once implemented, the new application would reduce Idaho’s dependence on clerical resources and help save precious budget dollars.

“We used to have intervention of clerical staff shuffling lots and lots of paper around. Before we started the project, we put together some projections by doing some analysis of the print statistics of our customers’ production systems. We know that we can’t totally eliminate printing of special forms like Accounts Payable remittance advice, but we felt like we could do away with the largest share of production reports,” she comments.

“When we went through and did our analysis, it came out very close to the data center saving in the area of $180,000 a year, and in between the two customers, something like $200,000 a year in print costs, and that was just the dollars that we charged them. We’d been supporting two large Xerox page printers, with maintenance costs, and by rolling out this application, we’re able to put in a bunch of small HP printers to reduce the maintenance costs.”

Now finished and in production, Idaho’s new zLinux-based Web publishing system taps a .PDF reporting format, PHP coding, and a MySQL repository. Best of all, says Marchant, it’s both user-friendly and user-empowering: “We’ve been able to build user interfaces where report-owners actually perform all of the maintenance activities that will trigger their reports to be pushed [from] the mainframe to the application running on zLinux,” she observes.

Better still, says Judge, the new zLinux application lets the Idaho State Controller’s Office provide much better service to its customers: “People get their reports almost instantly, instead of us having to box them up and mail them.” He adds: “What’s really slick about [the application] is that our customers don’t need anything but a Web browser and Adobe Acrobat. They get their reports in the morning when we get to work. Nobody has to box them [or] pick them up, so this is a real, real money saver for the state of Idaho.”

Idaho’s MySQL repository current stores almost 2.9 million pages, all of which are accessible from the Web, according to Judge. The new application currently supports as many as 600 concurrent users, a number that’s expected to continue to grow as the Idaho State Controller’s Office rolls the application out to a broader audience, such as vendors who provide goods and services to the state. “Our authentication database has 26,000 active users [state employees and others] over the course of a year, and any of those users are eligible to view online reports,” notes Marchant.

One of the best things about zLinux is that—thanks to its zVM underpinnings—system managers can husband compute resources to make more effective use of compute capacity. The result? The Idaho State Controller’s Office is using only a fraction (three to four percent)of its overall capacity, thus giving it plenty of room to grow. Even so, Judge is taking a very pragmatic approach to zLinux.

“As we’ve moved down the path with these mainframe Linux applications or implementations, we’ve realized that there are some things that make good business sense to move to, and others that [do] not. The more I/O intensive [an application is], the better the mainframe is. If it’s a heavy-duty high-compute-[intensive] application, maybe that’s not the best to do. But this kind of [Web publishing] application is great; [there's] very little cost,” he says.

With this caveat in mind, the Idaho State Controller’s Office hopes to migrate its zOS-based Lotus Domino applications to zLinux. “So far we do not have that in a production mode, but we are actively testing those Domino applications. My hope is that I’m going to be able to freeze those software costs so they don’t keep growing,” Judge indicates.

Going forward, Marchant says her organization plans to deliver at least two additional custom applications. “We have two more applications under way that will open up our Linux environment to our vendor community. These Web applications will allow vendors to take advantage of electronic funds transfer. They will be able to go to our web site and look at their remittance advice and [electronic fund transfer] settlements the morning after the funds transfer posts to their accounts,” she concludes.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.