Who’s Using Linux on the System i?
October 30, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
IBM first announced the availability of Linux on the iSeries in May 2001–more than five years ago. With great fanfare, Big Blue has consistently touted this Linux capability as a means for shops to realize cost savings and simplicity by capitalizing on the huge (outside the System i community) movement towards open source software and through server consolidation. All the appropriate heads nodded at the time, and certainly no one is arguing that the System i’s ability to run Linux or other operating system partitions is in any way a bad thing. Yet it’s unclear just how many System i users have actually chosen this path. But there are some, and they are doing great things.
Most readers of the System i press and attendees of COMMON have already heard the story of GHY, one of the oldest brokerage companies in Canada, which offers a full range of international trade services between the United States and Canada. Winner of the 2005 IBM iServer iSeries Innovation Award for Infrastructure Simplification (and a runner-up in 2006), GHY and its director of IT, Nigel Fortlage, have achieved fame in the System i community for its server consolidation project.
GHY has been using Linux for nine years and has been running Linux on the iSeries since 2003. Prior to that, Fortlage reports that the company was using Linux on Intel servers through out the enterprise. The company had planned to add nine more Intel servers running Linux, a move that would have doubled the size of the company’s server farm. “There were three of us,” says Fortlage, “and we were already 95 percent busy just keeping the computer in the server room talking and working. God forbid we double the size of that to nine more machines!” The solution was to put them all inside the iSeries so they could really double them but not have to add staff. “Our time went from 95 percent managing the interconnections and networking between servers to 5 percent, just through the server consolidation and virtualization.”
Instead, today GHY runs nine logical partitions with Linux inside on a System i5. These partitions cover firewall and network functions, email and Web servers, and Web-enabled applications, since GHY has opted to use the Linux environment rather than native WebSphere on i5/OS for the Web presentation later of its applications.
Fortlage estimates that of System i shops with any IT staff at all, approximately 60 to 70 percent would find that “somebody has snuck a Linux server on Intel in there somewhere already. There’s no reason why that server couldn’t have been a partition on a System i.”
So why aren’t more people doing it? Fortlage points out that not everyone has the Linux background that GHY had, with nine years of experience. Because Linux was already embedded in the shop, it was a more logical thing for GHY to do. But a bigger reason may be that users just aren’t getting the value message.
“There are a lot of customers out there who are like I was in 2002,” Nigel explains. “I went to every IBM announcement and the company kept talking about virtual I/O and LPARS, and all the words were there. But these words never once meant anything that related to my business. There was never a connection made from those technologies for the sake of technology and how they could be used to solve my business dilemmas.”
You have to remember, too, that this was four years ago. IBM is arguably doing a better job of talking today about the business value of server consolidation.
Perhaps another reason that the Linux on System i5 bandwagon is still running with plenty of open seats is that implementing Linux is not necessarily a simple task. Keeping in mind that his company already had staff with Linux skills, Fortlage points out, “It’s not easy at all. It’s not even close to easy. It’s a completely different operating system. You have to build it, assemble it, put it together. It’s not complete and robust like most people are used to with i5/OS.” But, it can do infrastructure workloads and it is worth doing.
Richard Sunley is business systems manager for Loewen, a Canadian-based company that manufacturers and markets luxury wood windows and doors that are available in fifteen countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, Japan, and Mexico. The company has approximately 1,500 employees and caters to the high-end housing market, selling primarily to corporations and dealers.
Loewen’s experience on the IBM midrange platform dates back to the mid-1980s with a System/36. The company currently has two i5s, one to support its ERP system from Friedman, and another using Linux to support Web servers and Domino for email. The Linux machine also has a partition to run WebSphere for the company’s “dealer tools,” which is a secure Web site that allows dealers to log in and access order status, financial information, the parts catalog, warranty information, and service requests.
Loewen’s Web site actually runs within Domino, which is perfectly capable or running Web sites. When a request comes through to run an application like an order status, it goes through the firewall and talks to WebSphere 6.0 on Linux on the one i5 server. That machine will do a Java call to the database running on the other i5, where the ERP information is housed in the DB2/400 database, then call a program, pull the data back into the first i5, format the Web page, and give it to the Web server for presentation to the dealer.
That decision to get rid of its Windows server and put the Linux partition on the System i was just made this year, for reasons that replay the themes heard from GHY: “We are a private corporation, and we have limited resources,” says Sunley. ” Looking at a Windows infrastructure just wasn’t very cost-effective for us. We could put in a less-expensive solution with Linux on System i.” There is more Linux implementation ahead for Loewen. Sunley reports that the company is now looking at developing its internal corporate intranet applications on Linux as well.
Sunley believes that more System i users have not gone to Linux because the skill set isn’t there. “Linux represents a new environment to most System i users. Training and developing that skill set is the biggest hurdle.” He says that it will take about two weeks to turn a System i administrator into a Linux administrator. (This sounds optimistic.) And beyond that, building Linux skills is a matter of training for the individual applications that the company uses from the popular Linux distributions. Most Linux distributions have thousands of applications.
That may sound easy, but it’s not. Sunley offers advice to those thinking of implementing Linux: “Linux on System i is fairly straightforward, but don’t go into it blind. Don’t just say, ‘I’m going to run a Linux partition now’ and then try to run it. You really have to have a good understanding of how the server is going to operate. It runs fairly seamlessly right now, but if you don’t develop a good base of knowledge in your staff, you are going to have problems.”
Both Fortlage and Sunley approached the implementation of Linux with some experience with both the iSeries and Linux. Tommy Butler, Linux engineer for American International Group, offers a different perspective, having joined AIG only two months ago with strong expertise in Linux and no experience at all on the System i.
AIG is made up of many insurance and financial companies, with operations in 130 countries around the world. The corporate group for which Butler works (in a classified location, no less) has a very wide variety of machines and platforms, with computer systems that range from huge mainframes to smaller midrange systems and servers. The individual companies that make up AIG operate within a corporate framework of recommendations, specifications, and standards, but these companies have control of their own applications. It is the task of the corporate group to manage the servers and the services and provide the necessary infrastructure.
“Recently, we’ve been going forward with a big Linux push” says Butler. “A lot of our companies have been asking for Linux, so we are starting up that program.” That’s where Butler comes in. His job is to look at the equipment–for example, a number of iSeries machines–that have excess capacity, and implement Linux on those machines, including doing proof-of-concept on the various platforms, offering the ability to leverage the investment the company has already made.
Naturally, Butler has had access to the people in the organization with System i experience–but they have no Linux background, and Butler has no System i experience. And getting the information he needed about the platform was a challenge. While he had no difficulty at all in finding solid documentation about Linux on xSeries, there wasn’t much available, he says, on System i from either IBM or Novell. “The documentation for putting Linux on the System i is scant and ambiguous. There’s not much out there.”
He had little success, either, in getting any direct help either from IBM or Novell. At IBM, the System i folks sent him to the Linux folks, and the Linux folks didn’t understand anything about the iSeries. Instead, he found his support from Web sites like ours and mailing lists like Midrange L–and those folks, he says, were very helpful.
Butler does have some recommendations for someone else going through this process. “Be ready for key mindset changes for someone who has always been in the iSeries world. Linux is a command-driven environment. And make sure you have people on the iSeries side who know how to set up a logical hosted partition. If you don’t get that set up correctly, including the virtual network settings, you are in trouble.”
For System i shops that have an Intel box somewhere running a Linux application, for those thinking of implementing a Linux application, or for those who have excess capacity and want to make it available for a Linux application–and that list probably incorporates the majority of shops–the move seems sound. The payoff will be a less complexity and a less costly operating environment. But like most good things in life, the benefits won’t come without some pain.
“It’s all about taking back corporate central control of the infrastructure components while allowing the distributed environment to actually be a virtual environment that people want,” Fortlage concludes. “I don’t want to restrict the operating system that users want. I just don’t want to have nightmares because the flip side is spending a whole lot more dollars on IT. If you can control and minimize the ongoing expense so that your dollars and time are freed up to focus on the business, that’s good.”