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SuSE swipes AS/400 in IBM megadeal

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

LinuxWorld SuSE is leading a charge to put Linux on IBM's AS/400 servers, and public demonstrations should be ready before the end of the year the company said yesterday.

Dirk Hondel, SuSE CTO, told The Register that a number of big customers were piloting large S/390 projects which involved replaced hundreds of infrastructure PCs with virtual counterparts running in mainframe partitions.

The news came as SuSE announced that IBM would make its Linux 7.0 distro available across the full range of IBM business PCs and RS/6000s. SuSE will be first choice in Europe, and along with Caldera, top choice in the US too.

If you knew SuSE

Although partnerships between OEMs and distros are announced every day, what swings this one is that SuSE has got across the board coverage for IBM kit on ThinkPads, NetVista clients, Intellistations and NetFinity servers.

The two are also working on getting IBM's X-architecture to Linux and offering web clustering on NetFinity servers. Unlike Dell, IBM pledged that identical hardware configured with Linux will not carry the "Windows tax": the surcharge you pay for buying a Windows-free system. This week Michael Dell simultaneously argued that a) no way, this didn't exist! and b) it was there because Linux cost more to support.

The Linux-on-AS/400 initiative was announced earlier this year - and the news that it's SuSE who is providing the elbow grease shouldn't be too surprising. SuSE has strong in-house Power RISC expertise, supporting both the RS/6000 and Macintosh. (We were startled to drop by the SuSE booth and discover SuSE Linux 6.4 running on a G4, with the Mac desktop running in a window inside it at native speed, or close enough.)

The AS/400, RS/6000 and Power Mac G4 are variations on a theme, although the strange and wonderful internal architecture of the AS/400 makes it much more of a challenge than a port to either Apple's box or IBM's Unix mainstay.

Dirk Hondel says that the economics of server consolidation are attractive for such a hair-brained sounding idea to pay dividends.

The big server farms in SuSE's S/390 pilot projects run around 4000 PCs at once. Given that a PC equipped for such a task starts at $3000, then the asking price of an S/390 ($500,000) starts to look very cheap indeed. And that's before any savings for loading and configuring a new PC to the farm are costed in. With S/390 partitions adding a new "PC" is instant and, alas, BOFH free.

Yes, says Hondel, TCP/IP performance is an issue. Mainframes I/O architectures are designed around sending big chunks of data quickly but infrequently, while chatty TCP/IP protocols like to send lots of small packets around really quickly.

"There's room for improvement, but the performance is sufficient for a business case to be made today," says Hondel. "But the advantage of multiplexing that I/O to and in the same machine is huge too." IBM is reworking its next S/390 for better IP traffic management.

Donkeys led by lions

So how will the AS/400 play? On the downside, most AS/400s do the kind of transactional donkey work that's been furthest away from the browser user, and they're avidly bought in sectors that are also a long way away from high-volume web traffic, such as manufacturing.

On the upside, you could reason that B2B transactions really ought to be conducted between such venerable boxes, without pesky Windows 2000 SOAP-enabled .net servers getting in the way. If you think of it like that, all this middleware begins to look like manual intervention: expensive, and prone to go on long periods of sick leave.

You could also argue that the middleware only exists because mainframe (and mini) applications were so expensive and difficult to write, but once Linux becomes the application engine, that problem goes away too. And to boot, AS/400s start at $8000 rather than $500,000. So we'll be watching some interest how these critters really scale. ®

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