Will Microsoft Windows be next on System z?

Anyone paying attention to the Sine Nomine demo,  two weeks ago, now knows that Solaris is inevitably coming to System z. In the wake of all of this, I have heard from a number of you – and people throughout the industry about – you guessed it: “What’s next, Windows?” I’m guessing many of you have the same question. To really get at the dynamics of this, we have to look to the past. 

Back in the early 90's, Windows was not just on the x86 architecture (at the time, only on Intel – remember Wintel?). It was also running on MIPS, Alpha and the PowerPC architecture. There's something a bit different about the x86 architecture....this is a bit technical here, but it uses the Little Endian bit representation within a byte while the RISC architectures under the popular UNIX platforms and IBM's mainframe use Big Endian architecture. Solaris and Linux were written in a way that makes that bit representation transparent. But Microsoft decided long ago that Windows would only run in Little Endian mode. 

Back in 1994, there was a skunk works within the IBM mainframe division that looked at running Windows NT as a native operating system on what was then a 10-way S/390 platform. It figured out how to boot the machine up as a Little Endian server and it could have run Windows across those 10 processors. But guess what? No hypervisor or virtualization capabilities would exist. They have been written in Big Endian mode. So it would be an entire mainframe dedicated to a single instance of Windows. My palm can do that. 

So, IBM realized then that this had no future in terms of consolidation value. In turn, Microsoft decided to uniquely support the x86 architecture and the Alpha and MIPS implementations of Windows died a rather quick death. 

Next up was to bring some Windows portability to the mainframe. So working with Bristol Technology (now a subsidiary of HP), IBM looked at getting a set of Windows 32 bit APIs and its OLE and COM capabilities on OS/390. This was just after IBM had announced its intention to brand OS/390 as a UNIX operating system. Bristol Technology had a license to the Microsoft source code to facilitate that. Well, Microsoft must have gotten afraid of the possibilities of Windows applications running easily on the mainframe, so they took away the software license from


. Bristol, in turn, sued them for unfair trade and they won. But by then, Microsoft’s approach had driven these types of developers from their platform. Today, Mainsoft Corporation provides a Windows portability layer across UNIX systems and z/OS, but we'll never see a day when Windows will run natively on the mainframe.


So what are the implications to the mainframe? Let’s start with development tools for creating new applications. If you only use Microsoft .Net development tooling, those solutions will be relegated to the Wintel platform. Should those applications want to interoperate with the mainframe, there are a variety of connectors that enable interoperability with both 3270 and SOAP/Web service based applications as well as distributed data requests. As mentioned earlier, you can use Mainsoft's technology to translate the .Net code into Java byte codes and run that on z/OS and Linux for System z as well. Therefore you get some developers synergy, but deployment options beyond Wintel platforms.  

If you really want cross platform deployment from the Windows desktop environment, eclipse.org is an open standards group comprised of a number of leading tooling vendors to facilitate rapid application development, good tool integration and provide a flexible choice for platforms to which those applications can be deployed. Leveraging this tool set will facilitate exploitation of mainframe technology and is highly recommended to deliver the best qualities of service for software running on System z. IBM’s Rational Developer for z is an implementation of the eclipse capabilities for System z.

by JimPorell December 14, 2007 in History
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Did You See the SDF III Announcement? :-)

Some blog readers might know Screen Definition Facility II (SDF II). This IBM tool helps developers create common, easy-to-use 3270 user interfaces more quickly. SDF II has been around for at least two decades, and that greatly exceeds my professional IT career, so I can only guess there was an original SDF I. (Was there?) SDF is still popular, and you can still order it.

If you close your eyes (permanently) and pretend that mainframes didn't evolve over the past 20 years, SDF II is the end of your story. You'd believe that there's no other way for a user to interact with a mainframe, at least directly, except through 3270 terminal screens. Who wouldn't prefer a mouse and graphical interface, particularly a Web interface? OK, maybe the airline check-in agent, who is still a lot faster getting you onto your flight using the traditional interface.

I'm still not sure why so many people get this aspect of mainframes wrong, that the mainframe requires a particular user interface.

Today at IBM, a mainframe serves most of our "w3" internal Web pages. (Because it's the most cost-effective solution.) If you polled IBMers to ask what server provides those pages, most wouldn't have a clue. Except for the fact "w3" works extra-reliably and with consistently excellent performance, users cannot perceive any differences.

We use a great deal of WebSphere Portal on our mainframe — it's our SDF III, so to speak. IBM also introduced WebSphere Dashboard Framework Version 6.0 for both z/OS and Linux on System z late this year. Together with Portal, Dashboard Framework delivers personalized content with advanced user controls. There are features like charting, alerting, and what I call "business blogging." Anything that a Web browser can do a mainframe can deliver, and the tools to create advanced user interfaces are quite sophisticated. There's a good demo available if you want to see what 2007's mainframe looks like to its users.

If WebSphere Portal, Dashboard Framework, and Lotus ActiveInsight (which runs on Linux on z) are too amazing, you should know that for years every copy of z/OS, and OS/390 before it, has included the IBM HTTP Server. Please start using it if you're aren't already. It's historical fact that the first Web server anywhere outside Switzerland was Stanford University's mainframe, and the first interactive Web application anywhere on the planet provided access to live mainframe information. You can download PHP for z/OS for example, at no charge, to build your own interactive Web applications. CICS Transaction Server also has HTTP capability at no additional charge. So do z/TPF and all the popular Linux on z distributions.

I'm still not sure why people are surprised when I point out these facts. Maybe the historic popularity of 3270 terminals (and terminal emulation) disguises the fact that mainframes have always provided multiple user interfaces over the years. Before I was born almost everyone interacted with mainframes via punch cards, and paper-based typewriter-like devices served as the interactive terminals of their era. Telephone interaction with mainframes via tone dialing came along and is still popular. GDDM and its predecessors provided fully graphical user interaction, even before the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows. Light pens and graphical vector displays were used starting at least 50 years ago. Now we have Web user interfaces, so is it any great surprise that mainframes started speaking HTML and HTTP before nearly every other server did?

I mention this issue because it's quite important to bust this particular myth, that the mainframe has only one type of (old fashioned) user interface. Most business users want graphical Web interfaces, so if you're not delivering them, who (what) will? I directly interact with a mainframe every day, but I cannot remember the last time I used a 3270 terminal emulator. The face you present to your users is critical, just as the face your company presents to your customers determines your business success.

There's nothing wrong with terminal interfaces per se, and many users are quite productive with them. I have a guess that many blog readers happen to like this traditional user interface, but what you use and prefer shouldn't influence the service you deliver to most business users.

Enjoy SDF III — er, WebSphere Dashboard Framework. :-)

by Timothy Sipples December 10, 2007 in Innovation
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