Network support key as mainframe evolves

As IBM evolves the mainframe as a hub for increasingly on-demand data centers, it is fine-tuning how the Big Iron communicates with other devices on distributed networks, making it easier to support LANs, enhancing the performance and bandwidth of network links and adding security features specifically designed for service-oriented architectures.

For the last year or so, IBM has placed a greater focus on improving Big Iron network capabilities as more customers run Java- and Linux-based workloads on the machines and move to push legacy mainframe applications into the Web services world.

That places greater demands on the mainframe, best known for its reliability, scalability and performance, to act as more of a peer in today's network architectures, analysts say.

"The old model was that networking was going to be largely between IBM devices across SNA. The new model is that networking is something that happens between mainframes and the rest of the world over IP," says Jonathan Eunice, founder and principal IT analyst at Illuminata. "Whether that [networking] is through a direct IP connection or through a multilayer protocol stack [such as Web services] is fairly immaterial; that the z folks have shifted their mind-set and the use cases that they design the gear and software for - that's huge."

A new world

Hannaford Brothers grocery store chain, for example, is moving its mainframe CICS transactions toward Web services thanks to new software tools from IBM.

"CICS is IBM's original technology, but IBM has upgraded it, so with very few modifications, we can put a Web front end using standard [Simple Object Access Protocol] to existing CICS transactions," says Bill Homa, CIO at the Scarborough, Maine, company.

Hannaford Brothers recently tested a vendor-to-vendor CICS transaction using the Web services framework and was happy with the results.

"We were curious how it would work," Homa says. "It wasn't very hard to do, and the response time was terrific."

Response time and the need to interact with a variety of platforms and devices are pushing IBM to think more broadly about how the mainframe should communicate. Virtualization, network management and security are at the top of the list when it comes to the mainframe communications road map, says Jim Porell, senior technical staff member and chief architect for IBM's mainframe software group.

"The mainframe doesn't exist without a network anymore," he says, explaining that it must embrace and integrate with other technologies.

"In this interconnected world, one of the questions is ‘Can we help the other guys? Can we make the Intel, RISC space better because we're a part of it?'" Porell says. "The enterprise-wide role is really the big change that is happening" with the mainframe.

New and improved

Connecting to other platforms means making greater use of TCP/IP. As a result, IBM continues to advance its Open Systems Adapter (OSA) card, the network controller for the mainframe.

Big Blue's newest mainframes, the System z9 Enterprise Class introduced last fall and the System z9 Business Class that had its debut in the spring, include OSA-Express2.

The new OSA card, which is installed in the mainframe's I/O cage, can support a broad range of Ethernet connectivity from 1000 Base-T Ethernet to Gigabit Ethernet to 10 Gigabit Ethernet. In addition, IBM has enhanced the virtual LAN (VLAN) capabilities, enabling users to set priorities for network traffic using IEEE 802.1Q.

"IBM is doing a lot of work on the mainframe in terms of virtualization of IP addresses and that makes it incredibly easy to move workloads around," Homa says.

Mike Kahn, managing director of the Clipper Group, says the updated virtualization capabilities combined with expanded networking throughput make the mainframe more capable of fitting in with next-generation SOAs.

"The availability of 10 Gigabit Ethernet that's partitionable with the virtual LAN - that's very exciting," he says. "The big benefit to a lot of this is it allows legacy applications - COBOL and CICS - to be assigned virtual network resources without having to change any of the code."

The next release of the mainframe operating system, z/OS 1.8, due out in September, will make network authentication easier with the capability for Cisco devices to communicate with the mainframe and ensure that all network points are protected, Porell says.

"Our upcoming release, z/OS 1.8 has a new function... that is a way that the Cisco device can say, ‘Oh, this digital certificate expired. Let me go back to the source and re-allocate it without having to do manual intervention.' It will automate a lot of those operations," he says.

IBM also is improving how the mainframe does what it does best: communicate internally and with other mainframes as it acts as the central processing engine and data store for the most important business applications. HiperSockets, the mainframe's internal memory-to-memory communication, for example, now supports IPv6. Externally, the new System z9 mainframes support FICON Express4, meaning data is moved in and out of the systems at rates of up to 4Gbps.

IBM also is working on extending its Parallel Sysplex mirroring technology that for the past few years has enabled customers to replicate data on disparate mainframes as much as 100 miles apart. In the future, customers will also be able to copy on Linux platforms within System z.

"So that z/OS can not only be copying and helping to facilitate remote copies of our local data, but also the Linux data that's on the same box in another logical partition," Porell says. "We're looking at piloting that first with Linux on System z then on Linux on another platform."

The idea, he says, is to make better use of the mainframe's disaster recovery and data management expertise by more tightly linking with other platforms.

"The question is, how do I leverage the network and truly share data?" he says. "By sharing data [rather than replicating it on multiple platforms], I have better audit and control. I can start reducing the complexity when it comes to [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance."

Network neighbors

Like IBM, Unisys also is seeing more interest in using its ClearPath mainframes as part of SOAs, placing greater demand on its network capabilities.

Bob Ready, director of IT at Crescent Electrical Supply in East Dubuque, Ill., is pushing to move the presentation component of his transaction applications from the ClearPath system and onto Intel boxes.

"We're trying to move to a service-oriented architecture where the presentation end... resides on the open systems side," Ready says. "On the [ClearPath] mainframe side we develop a series of core services that we assemble into new applications."

Unisys uses Intel-based network appliance devices to enable its systems to connect into IP networks. The ClearPath boxes support not only its proprietary MCP operating system, but also Windows and Linux.

"We built interfaces between the legacy environment and the commodity space so as new and emerging technologies come along we're able to quickly integrate those by having adapted this appliance approach," says Ralph Farina, director of Unisys' ClearPath MCP technology office.

Through proprietary code on the appliances, Unisys is able to add features such as security to the network interface, Farina says. Moving forward, Unisys will be focused on enhancing the security features in the network appliances, Farina says.

Connecting the mainframe

Today's mainframe can support a number of network technologies including:
SNA/IP, which preserves investments in SNA-based transaction applications by encapsulating SNA traffic in TCP packets, for example.
FICON Express4, a proprietary fiber connection IBM created for the mainframe that now supports transfer rates of up to 4Gbps.
Fibre Channel Protocol to enable Linux instances on the zSeries to communicate with SCSI devices.
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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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