IBM Teams With Canonical To Put Ubuntu Linux On Mainframes

You might not think that ‘Linux’ and ‘mainframe’ belong in the same sentence, but IBM has been putting various flavors of Linux on its mainframe computers for 15 years. Today IBM and Canonical announced that the two companies were teaming up to build one running Ubuntu Linux. The new unit is called the LinuxOne.

The announcement comes as part of a broader strategy from IBM designed to drive mainframe usage to a wider audience. This new approach includes a monthly subscription pricing model, deeper involvement with other open source projects, contributing a huge cache of mainframe code to open source and participating in the newly launched Open Mainframe Project.

The new mainframes come in two flavors, named for penguins (Linux — penguins — get it?). The first is called Emperor and runs on the IBM z13, which we wrote about in January. The other is a smaller mainframe called the Rockhopper designed for a more “entry level” mainframe buyer.

You may have thought that mainframes went the way of the dinosaur, but they are still alive and well and running in large institutions throughout the world. IBM as part of its broader strategy to promote the cloud, analytics and security is hoping to expand the potential market for mainframes by running  Ubuntu Linux and supporting a range of popular open source enterprise software such as Apache Spark, Node.js, MongoDB, MariaDB, PostgreSQL and Chef.

IBM lands between 10 and 20 mainframe customers a quarter, according to Ross Mauri, general manager for IBM Systems. By offering an elastic, cloud-like pricing model, it is hoping to land more customers who might have been scared away previously by the up-front cost of investing in a mainframe.

The  metered mainframe will still sit inside the customer’s on-premises data center, but billing will be based on how much the customer uses the system, much like a cloud model, Mauri explained.

At first glance, Canonical and IBM may seem to be an odd pairing, but Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT says it’s recognition by IBM of the growing relevance of Ubuntu Linux in the enterprise.

In fact, John Zannos from Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu says that IBM approached his company when it began running into more customers running Ubuntu. He added that this isn’t the first time, the two companies have worked have come together, having also worked on the OpenPOWER project.

“For me what is most exciting is that IBM is working through a paradigm shift and looking at Z systems and the mainframe, expanding them and deepening open source software  enablement,” Zannos said.

King thinks the deal should ultimately benefit both parties (as any good deal should). “It should help IBM by opening doors in customers where Canonical is particularly strong. But Canonical is likely to benefit even more through exposure to the large enterprises that make up IBM’s traditional mainframe customer base,” King said.

The overall approach aims to widen the potential market for mainframes as IBM tries to find creative ways to increase sales. In its most recent quarterly earnings report last month, the company extended its sales slide to thirteen straight quarters, posting revenue decreases across all of its major business lines, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

In light of these numbers, IBM is looking for ways to increase those sales. Partnering with Canonical and encouraging use of open source tools on a mainframe gives the company a new way to attract customers to a small, but lucrative market.