Monday, 26 March 2012

IBM takes the QI approach!

The BBC in the UK produces a wonderful programme called QI – IQ reversed, but officially standing for Quite Interesting. The point of the show, which is a humorous quiz show, is to not only illustrate how little we know, but also highlight the things we think we know that are actually wrong! So, for example, the teams might be asked to name an animal that buries its head in the sand. A contestant saying ostrich will have points deducted because no-one has ever seen an ostrich bury its head in the sand. And yet the myth dates back to Pliny the Elder. You get the idea of the show.

In a presentation at the Share user conference last Wednesday entitled “Hex, Lies and Videoblogs”, IBM’s chief architect for cloud computing, Frank DeGilio set about (in the style of QI) debunking some of those mainframe myths that we all come up against time after time.

For many years, the much-missed Xephon organization published the Dinosaur Myth, which crunched the figures for small, medium, and mainframe installations, looking at hardware, software, maintenance, and running costs. And every time it did the sums, it found that mainframes cost less overall. Similarly, DeGilio pointed out that most people ignored any figures apart from the basic hardware and software ones. He argued that, particularly for large-scale infrastructures, management complexity and personnel costs are often critically important parts of a system's final price tag. As Xephon’s publication identified, an expanding infrastructure requires more people if it’s distributed than if it is a mainframe.

There’s also the general ignorance that mainframes are your dad’s technology, and if the code isn’t written in Latin or Ancient Greek, then it’s the digital equivalent. While it’s perfectly true that mainframes run a lot of COBOL and Assembler programs, they have embraced modern trends as they have occurred over the past 50 years. This means, as Frank DeGilio pointed out, that J2EE, Linux and other modern open standards are all widely supported. Perhaps more importantly, Frank asserted that there's nothing outdated about the way mainframes handle workload management. In fact, their ability to fine-tune resource allocation based on application need is far more granular and sophisticated than that of most distributed systems.

Old iron tends to break rather than bend. But that’s not the case with mainframes, which are highly flexible and well able to balance workloads. As DeGilio says, “the very concept of capacity upgrade on demand was ‘pioneered’ by the mainframe”.

It doesn’t matter whether a computer doing nothing is a Raspberry Pi or the fastest supercomputer in the world – it’s still doing nothing! What really counts is how the box handles real-life mixed workloads. Various figures are produced suggesting that specific hardware and software combinations can set specific benchmarking records, but what’s needed is something that can handle everyday workloads as speedily as possible. DeGilio argued that the mainframe’s flexibility means that its speed in handling multiple real-world tasks is greater than what might be indicated by testing a box to perform a single activity.

Like Stephen Fry, who chairs QI, it’s really the job of mainframe professionals to go out there and debunk these myths. There’s a clear need to highlight incorrect thinking and identify ways that the mainframe could be a better answer to IT problems. QI isn’t dull – so you don’t have to be the most boring person in the world just because you want people to change their thinking and see the bigger picture!

And finally (from the QI stock of knowledge), where do Panama hats come from?
The answer is Ecuador!

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Sunday, 18 March 2012

Trevor Eddolls - IBM Champion 2012

The e-mail arrived this past week confirming that I’d been recognized as an IBM Champion 2012. I’ve been an IBM Champion since 2009, although the name has changed from IBM Data Champion, through IBM Information Champion, to just IBM Champion over the years.

But what does it mean? According to IBM: “An IBM Champion is someone who makes exceptional contributions to the technical community. Contributions can come in a variety of forms, and popular contributions include blogging, speaking at conferences or events, moderating forums, leading user groups, and authoring books or magazines. Educators can also become IBM Champions; for example, academic faculty may become IBM Champions by including IBM products and technologies in course curricula and encouraging students to build skills and expertise in these areas.

“An IBM Champion is not an IBMer, and can live in any country. IBM Champions share their accomplishments and activities in their public profiles on IBM developerWorks, making it easy for the IT professional community to learn more about them and their contributions, and engage with them.”

So why am I an IBM Champion? Well, I don't work for IBM, but I do write about mainframe hardware and software. I blog at and I also blog once a month on the Destination z Web site ( I’m Editorial Director for the well-respected Arcati Mainframe Yearbook ( I’ve also written technical articles that have been published in a variety of journals including z/Journal ( And I chair the Virtual IMS user group ( and the Virtual CICS user group ( I also look after their social networking – you can find information about the groups on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

IBM Champions receive the title for one year, during which they can enjoy the benefits associated with the program – rather than any direct payment from IBM. Existing Champions are eligible to renew their status for the following year, as long as they can demonstrate that they have made significant contributions to the community over the past 12 months.

Are IBM Champions compensated for their role? Sadly (from my point of view) the answer is no. Do IBM Champions have any obligations to IBM? Again the answer is no. IBM Champions have no obligations to IBM. The title recognizes their past contributions to the community only over the previous 12 months. Do IBM Champions have any formal relationship with IBM? No. IBM Champions don’t formally represent IBM nor do they speak on behalf of IBM.

The e-mail did say that as a 2012 Champion I will receive ‘IBM Champion merchandise’ including a shirt, travel umbrella, messenger bag, framed certificate, lanyard, leather luggage tag, assorted paper products, and pin. So, that’ll be nice.

There may not be a financial benefit to being an IBM Champion, but I think it’s a nice way for IBM to recognize people around the world who are helping to promote IBM products and help share information about the products amongst their users.

You can see my profile at

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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Operating systems on a stick

You’re probably familiar with IBM’s z Personal Development Tool Adapter, which allows users to develop mainframe software without a mainframe. In effect, users plug a very expensive memory stick into their PC and it acts like a mainframe.

But now, IBM has extended the idea by allowing users with the appropriate memory stick to load a cloud-hosted Windows or Linux operating system onto their PC – although they will need a Windows or Linux computer with a 64-bit processor. It’s called the Secure Enterprise Desktop (SED) and comes packaged as an extension to IBM’s Smart Business Desktop Cloud service.

The memory stick plugs into a USB port (as you’d expect) and comes with its own HTTPS stack, bootloader, and the necessary proprietary code to create a secure VPN channel connection between a partitioned drive on the user’s PC and a remotely-located server.

That’s nice, you say, but what’s the point? Well, it’s another way of allowing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). This is an issue that I blogged about a little while ago, and one that is beginning to raise its head at many sites. Users like the devices they’ve bought themselves and are familiar with, rather than the products IT allocates them. And they want to use those devices to access their work-based data and applications.

Running the bootloader from the memory stick protects the business from the problem of home machines being riddled with viruses and trojans. The PC establishes a connection to the server, then there’s two-way authentication to ensure you’re who you say you are and the server is really the right one for your company (and not anyone else’s). Once this connection is established, the user downloads a small (kernel-based virtual machine) hypervisor, which allows the user to choose a Linux or Windows operating system. Any changes the user makes to data is written in an AES-256 encrypted format to a portion of the local hard drive with the key retained on the stick, and these changes are replicated back to the cloud-hosted operating system.

The device offers a range of authentication options, including a built-in card reader as well as PIN.

If the memory stick gets removed, the operating system instantly stops because the connection to the remote server has been severed. Re-inserting the stick allows re-authentication to occur and the user can carry on as before.

Users have the option to download the host operating system from the cloud, so they can continue to work without an Internet connection – if that’s what they require.

At the server end, a Linux server with Apache and OpenLDAP (open Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) are required.

It seems like a very useful innovation. What do you think?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

No Raspberry Pi left for pudding

IBM must dream of putting a new computer up for sale and selling out almost immediately – even when it restricts sales to one per customer. That’s what happened with the new Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi (since Android started this fascination with sweets and cakes, everyone seems to be at it) Model B is the size of a credit card and comes as a 45-gram open board that’s the size of a credit card. It comes with a variety of ports to allow users to plug in a keyboard and monitor (not supplied), and runs Open Source software developed by Seneca College in Toronto. It’s manufactured in China and distributed by UK-based organizations Premier Farnell and RS Components for $35 or £21.60.

The software includes a custom version of the Linux Fedora operating system and basic tools like a Web browser and word processor. Other software, adapted and developed by the Open Source software community around the world, will be available for download.

This miniature ARM-based PC can be used like a desktop PC for spreadsheets, word-processing, and games. It also plays high-definition video. It’s an energy-efficient device that can run using four AA batteries, and uses a TV as a monitor and stores data on SD cards.

The full technical features are:
  • Broadcom BCM2835 700MHz ARM1176JZFS processor with FPU and Videocore 4 GPU
  • GPU provides Open GL ES 2.0, hardware-accelerated OpenVG, and 1080p30 H.264 high-profile decode
  • GPU is capable of 1Gpixel/s, 1.5Gtexel/s or 24GFLOPs with texture filtering and DMA infrastructure
  • 256MB RAM
  • Boots from SD card, running the Fedora version of Linux
  • 10/100 BaseT Ethernet socket
  • HDMI socket
  • USB 2.0 socket
  • RCA video socket
  • SD card socket
  • Powered from microUSB socket
  • 3.5mm audio out jack
  • Header footprint for camera connection
  • Size: 85.6 x 53.98 x 17mm
The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a non-profit group that designed the computer as a device that young people could use to learn how to program. The goal is to boost interest in programming and computer science. Rather than the Foundation funding production, the distributors have agreed to handle orders and deal with manufacturers, and they will pay the Foundation a royalty on sales.

And if $35 seems a tad expensive, a cheaper $25 model will be available that has only one USB port instead of two and comes without an Ethernet port.

Let’s hope they get plenty in stock soon, for those of us who’d like to get our hands on one.
Or maybe smartphone manufacturers, which are probably more powerful, could produce an ‘open’ version that we could program to boil a kettle or whatever zany ideas people come up with for the Raspberry Pi.