IBM to let Linux fans use mainframe--for free

IBM says it will offer Linux supporters the next best thing starting this week: free access to one of the computing giant's powerful mainframe sytems.

Still saving up for your own mainframe computer?

IBM says it will offer Linux supporters the next best thing starting this week: free access to one of the computing giant's powerful mainframe sytems.

IBM will announce late in the week that it has made one of its 10-processor zSeries mainframe computers available via the Internet for access by people interested in working with the Linux operating system.

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The mainframe has been set up to give people "virtual servers", allowing them to log in, explore Linux features and test heavy-duty applications designed to run on Linux.

The mainframe, whose resources will be split among a large number of simultaneous users, will be able to allocate processing power and storage space to more than 1,000 people at a time, IBM executives said. However, the number of potential users who can sign up via IBM's Web site to use the machine is virtually unlimited.

Aside from its 10 processors, the mainframe is equipped with 2.1 terabytes of storage.

"There are many folks...who would like to get access to a mainframe and can't," said Joann Duguid, director of marketing for Linux for IBM's zSeries server. "What we'd like to see is more development of Linux applications."

Analysts said shared mainframe access using Linux is popular among universities but so far has not been offered by big businesses--certainly not for free.

"We always think that everyone who has heard of Linux has used it, but that's not true," said Bill Claybrook, research director for Linux and open source at Aberdeen Group in Boston.

This is "an opportunity for people who haven't used Linux to...get to try it out," he said.

Claybrook, a former Unix programmer, set up his own account, spent time getting the lay of the land, and then surfed the Web using a text browser called Lynx, "just to see if it works," he said.

Many people will likely do the same, just to see how Linux works. Still others, IBM hopes, will test applications. But what might seem like a grand experiment is also a shrewd marketing move by IBM. None of IBM's server competitors--such as Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard or Compaq Computer--has offered similar programs.

The move is also another opportunity for IBM to link itself to the open-source operating system in a way the pure Linux companies such as Red Hat would find hard to match--unless they want to pony up for a new mainframe. IBM is in the midst of a major Linux push this year, with CEO Lou Gerstner pledging to spend $1 billion on the operating system in 2001.

IBM will also gain, among other things, test data related to using its mainframes for applications such as Web hosting. This kind of data will help it approach potential customers looking to consolidate their Web hosting services on a single mainframe, Claybrook said, as opposed to maintaining a large number of individual Linux-based servers.

And the program is another way for Big Blue to promote its successful mainframe business, one of the brighter spots in the company's most recent earnings report. IBM reported that mainframe sales grew 40 percent in the first quarter of 2001 from the same period a year earlier.

From IBM's point of view, "It's a good way for us to illustrate the benefits of a mainframe," Duguid said. "It shows our commitment to the Linux community to allow anyone to use this."

To sign up, interested parties should look under "Linux Community Development System links" on IBM's zSeries server Web site.

Participants are granted access to the mainframe, which offers either TurboLinux or SuSE distrubutions for zSeries, in different stages and for terms ranging from 30 to 90 days, IBM said.