IBM Z and Linux Innovation: 20 Years and Counting

eWEEK INNOVATION PERSPECTIVE: IBM was ahead of its time in relationship to the upstart Linux operating system in the mid-1990s. Twenty years later and a huge amount of innovation later, IBM and the open source system are partners in thousands of systems globally.

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The phrase “IT modernization” has been around for well over a decade, but what does the concept mean? Often, it is simply a sales pitch by IT vendors who hope prospects will swap out aging systems for fresh equipment. But on a more nuanced level, it underscores the pressing need for businesses to invest in technologies powerful enough to meet their current requirements yet are flexible enough to address future challenges and opportunities. 

In essence, IT modernization is more about adaptability than trading in your old car on a shiny new set of wheels. However, that begs the question: Which IT vendors and solutions are best at meeting the demands of modern enterprise computing? 

A strong case can be made that IBM and its Z system mainframes stand at the very top of that list, in large part due to the company’s announcement some two decades ago to adopt and substantially invest in Linux on Z. The 20thanniversary of that decision offers a chance to consider why it has been vitally important to IBM, its customers and the IT industry.

Betting on the penguin

It might be difficult to remember now, but when Linux began moving into commercial markets in the mid-to-late 1990s, many enthusiasts believed or hoped that it would seriously challenge Microsoft as a desktop OS. That might seem like betting that an amateur flyweight could beat an experienced heavyweight champion, but others saw Linus Torvald’s project and plucky penguin mascot, Tux, as a significant boon to data center environments. 

Linux’s relatively minimal footprint meant that it could run efficiently on x86 systems, initially allowing companies to repurpose aging Intel-based servers for file/print and other modest workloads. However, a few vendors--including IBM--recognized that with proper investment Linux could be adapted to other server architectures, acting as a sort of Lingua Franca across heterogeneous systems. 

That was hugely beneficial to IBM in 2000, since the company manufactured four distinct eServer product lines, each with its own dedicated OS: xSeries (Intel and Windows), iSeries (AS/400 and OS/400), pSeries (IBM Power and AIX) and zSeries (mainframe central processor (CP) and MVS/ESA, OS/390 and zOS). In addition, Linux’s affinities with Unix meant that data center professionals could pick up new administration and management skills relatively easily. 

IBM became the first Tier 1 vendor to formally support Linux. Though some observers were surprised when the company announced in May 2000 that it would deliver Linux software and services for its flagship mainframes, the enterprises that owned those systems were enthusiastic about the new solutions. 

Over time, IBM also introduced the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), a special processor that was designed to support Linux workloads, as well as the company’s z/VM mainframe virtualization technology. Though IFLs were promoted in concert with the new zSeries solutions, they could also be purchased for IBM mainframes going back to G5 (S/390) series systems.

Along with the new IFLs, IBM said that it would dedicate $1 billion to fund Linux development, a far larger amount than other vendors committed. The company would eventually bring Linux to all four of its server platforms, but the new OS found a particularly welcome home on IBM Z mainframe systems and among mainframe-using customers.

Opening the doors to open source

Why did IBM decide to support Linux? For both strategic and technological reasons. In the former case, the company recognized that it would take time to build applications, tools and skills for Linux, and for enterprise customers to trust the new solutions. In the latter case, zSeries mainframes were multi-processor systems that supported sophisticated workload isolation and virtualization, enabling customers to easily explore, adopt and deploy Linux at their own speed and as new solutions matured. 

However, the company also recognized fundamental market and industry changes that could pose threats to their leadership position in enterprise computing. Hardware components were evolving at a blistering pace, as were applications and tools. Generational shifts were impacting computing professionals, from data center workers to software developers to computer science students. 

Not surprisingly, most young people preferred to focus on new and emerging technologies rather than the legacy systems powering large companies. IBM realized that as mainframe professionals “aged-out” and retired, shortages of potential replacement candidates was a serious risk. Adopting dynamic new technologies, including Linux, was vitally important to engaging with and attracting newly minted computer scientists and IT professionals.

Despite the support of IBM and other system vendors, Linux was not universally loved. In fact, many in the industry considered it a threat to their businesses and livelihoods. Microsoft’s then-CEO, Steve Ballmer, memorably called Linux “a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual-property sense to everything it touches.” But others, including IBM Chairman and CEO Louis V. Gerstner, recognized that Linux’s potential benefits far outweighed its challenges and greenlighted the company’s investment and go-to-market plans. 

Linux also opened IBM’s eyes to the opportunities of open source where, contradicting vendors’ traditional monolithic focus on proprietary product R&D, projects were nurtured and developed by communities of interested individuals and groups. The company’s 2000 Linux announcement included vocal support for open source and initiated two decades of IBM support for influential communities such as Linux, Apache and Eclipse, and contributions to a wide range of projects, including the Linux kernel, Java, Cloud Foundry, OpenStack, Docker, Kubernetes, Istio and blockchain. 

Looking back on 20 years of mainframe Linux

How did IBM’s Linux efforts progress and evolve after the 2000 launch? 

  • By 2002, two operating systems--Red Hat and SUSE--and major enterprise applications, including SAP and Oracle 9i were available for Linux on IBM mainframes;
  • By 2004, IBM clients were using Linux on Z to support mission critical applications;
  • In 2005, the Biggest Linux on zSeries client was running more than 290 IFLs;
  • In 2006, IBM announced that more than 1,000 enterprise applications were available for Linux on Z;
  • In 2009, IBM launched the Enterprise Linux Server, the first mainframe system that could be deployed as a Linux-only system;
  • In 2010, over 400 IBM software products were available for Linux on Z;
  • By 2013, over 3,000 enterprise applications supported Linux on Z;
  • In 2014, KVM and Open Stack became available for Linux on Z;
  • In 2015, IBM launched LinuxONE, a dedicated Linux-only mainframe for mission critical workloads. Later that year, the Linux Foundation launched the Open Mainframe Project, and MongoDB announced support for IBM Z systems;
  • In 2016, Ubuntu 16.04 LTS for IBM LinuxONE and IBM z Systems became available;
  • In 2018, IBM Cloud Private brought support for containers and Kubernetes to Linux on Z and LinuxONE. That same year, Linux workloads constituted more than half of all new mainframe deployments for the first time;
  • In 2019, IBM closed the $34B purchase of Red Hat, its largest-ever acquisition. The companies also announced plans to bring Red Hat OpenShift and IBM Cloud Paks to the IBM Z and LinuxONE enterprise platforms, a goal that was achieved the following year; and
  • In 2020, IBM’s largest Linux on Z client is running over 3,000 IFLs.

Final analysis

Does the 20th anniversary of IBM and Linux have any great significance, or is it simply an excuse for self-congratulation? Considerably more the former than the latter, to my way of thinking. The company’s initial Linux strategy required IBM to move well beyond its traditional comfort zone and against the wishes of more than a few board members and senior executives. Frankly, it is hard to imagine any IBM CEO prior to Lou Gerstner making a similar decision; it is a testimony to his foresight that he enabled the plan to proceed. 

But besides signaling a willingness to move well beyond conventional wisdom and traditional business practices, Linux and open source fundamentally altered IBM’s technological and cultural DNA. Under the leadership of the CEOs who followed Gerstner-- Sam Palmisano, Ginni Rometty and, most recently, Arvind Krishna--the company executed a steady, radical shift from focusing on enterprise hardware sales to developing and delivering innovative new software, services and cloud solutions. 

The roles of Linux and open source in those offerings have led to tens of billions of dollars in annual revenues for IBM. They and also helped enable the company’s Z mainframes to remain at the leading edge of business compute performance and the top of the high-end systems market. Additionally, Linux on Z mainframe solutions have played vital roles in helping IBM customers meet new challenges and capture new opportunities in rapidly evolving business technology landscapes. 

In other words, the 2000 wedding of Linux and the Z mainframe launched a company-wide IT modernization effort that has substantially benefited IBM and its customers and partners for 20 years and counting. That is an effort and an anniversary well worth celebrating.

Charles King is a principal analyst at PUND-IT and a regular contributor to eWEEK.  © 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.