Mainframe as an Enterprise Desktop Virtualization Server?


Enterprise desktops may soon be a thing of the past

In my last blog, I talked about the idea of a ‘software mainframe’, and how – if that term really means anything – IBM could actually be a serious threat to VMware (and the Virtual Computing Environment coalition of VMware/Cisco/EMC) , if it decided to support native Windows guests on its zSeries mainframes. As I noted in that post, I think this is far from impossible, and would change the face of the server virtualization substantially.

After I published that blog it occurred to me that IBM’s biggest opportunity may not be (or may not only be) in server virtualization. After all, VMware has a pretty good lock on that market right now, so simply getting penetration would be very tough (just ask Microsoft!). Plus, scaling out a zSeries platform with 1000 or more virtual servers in one hit is a major project, with a major upfront hardware budget, that is not going to fit many server virtualization & consolidation initiatives.

However, consider the needs of a desktop refresh. For even a relatively small refresh of a few thousand desktops, hardware costs alone can run well into six and even seven figures. It only takes 2000 desktops at $500 a piece to crack into the million-dollar hardware range – and you can accommodate a substantial mainframe in that kind of budget.

How about the mainframe as an enterprise desktop server?

How about the mainframe then, not as an enterprise server, but as an enterprise desktop server?

In fact, IBM already has almost all the piece-parts it needs to deliver this.

To start with, according to IBM, the new IBM zEnterprise 196 mainframe supports up to 96 total cores, each running at a lightning-fast 5.2-GHz. ComputerWorld reports it can support up to 3TB of memory on board, and can also manage external Power and x86 IBM blade systems to support up to 114 blades with eight cores. IBM says that means the new zEnterprise can manage more than 100,000 virtual machines, has 60% more capacity than its predecessor, the System z10, is up to 60% faster than the z10, and can deliver up to an 80% saving on energy compared to x86 architectures.

Big claims? Big machine.

As to the virtualization layer, the zSeries comes with virtualization built-in, of course, courtesy of the z/VM architecture, and its ability to run Linux (31-bit and 64-bit) and OpenSolaris natively. It also supports KVM-based virtualization, and before IBM stripped it down to make IBM PowerVM, the predecessor technology acquired from Transitive in late 2008 supported virtualization of applications for Windows, Mac, AIX, i5/OS, Linux, and Solaris/SPARC. Transitive also supported pSeries, PowerPC, Intel Mac, IA64, and x86 architectures. Moreover, the zSeries can even run standalone C/C++ and Java workloads natively.

It is not difficult to imagine a zSeries mainframe serving up end-user desktops and applications

With just a little engineering, it is not difficult to imagine a single zSeries mainframe serving up end-user desktops and applications regardless of platform – Windows, Solaris, Linux, Mac, or even Java/C++ native. Talk about a data center in a box!

It is not just the back-end data center components either. IBM also has an innovative desktop virtualization partnership with Canonical Ubuntu and Virtual Bridges VERDE, which can deliver both Linux and Windows desktop clients hosted from a Linux VDI backend (with offline client support too).

Moreover, the mainframe excels at four areas that are among the biggest hurdles in VDI-style desktop virtualization – high bandwidth, high CPU, high memory, and high storage utilization rates.

So, how about an IBM zEnterprise:

  • delivering thousands of Windows, Linux, Solaris, and even MacOS (!) client from one enterprise server
  • serving up desktop productivity tools like Lotus Symphony and Notes (or maybe, perhaps even running natively
  • using the Verde native capability, or integrating with an open-source Xen or KVM client hypervisor, to enable a ‘mobile/hosted’ hybrid desktop
  • partnering with a third party streaming vendor to deliver ‘on-demand’ desktops and applications
  • All of the above, offered in a hosted Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) model, through IBM Global Services (which some partners already do – in part)

Now that would upset the endpoint virtualization apple cart!

Of course, IBM is not the only vendor that could take aim at delivering an ‘all-in-one’ enterprise VDI server. The Cisco UCS has exceptional benchmarks for memory, throughput, and storage, as does the HP Integrity Superdome, but at least on spec neither comes close to the high-end of the zEnterprise in processor or memory capacity. Oracle (mainly through its Sun acquisition) has all of the virtualization components, from desktop to server, including hardware and software, but is struggling with maturity and in any case cannot deliver the sort of hardware specs that Cisco or HP does, let alone IBM.

IBM, on the other hand – within a hair either way – has it all, right now.

It may be ludicrous in any number of ways. However, there is clearly an opportunity

I have no significant inside knowledge on any of the desktop virtualization strategies of these vendors. In fact, so far, this is just a barely cooked idea in the back of my mind. It may be ludicrous in any number of ways. However, there is clearly an opportunity here, and it would be interesting to see if IBM could or would try – not least to see client computing come full circle from mainframe-attached terminals, to standalone PCs, back to mainframe-attached desktops.

And to be able to say, to all those who (still!) claim the mainframe is dead, “long live the enterprise (desktop) server!”