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IBM zAware Breaks New Ground in Virtual Software Appliances


IT managers are quite familiar with IT appliances—devices that combine hardware, firmware and software into special function systems. Usually factory built, integrated, pre-configured and optimized to perform a particular function, they even may come at a reduced cost compared to buying the components individually.

The big benefits, however, come from the optimization of the function and the significantly lower cost of deployment and ongoing support. Just unbox it, plug it in, maybe give it a network address, and it does what you bought it for—almost untouched by human hands. Ongoing maintenance? Forget it; it’s automated.

So, what might a System z appliance mean to your organization? This would be a System z software appliance, more likely a virtual software appliance, containing just enough OS code to do its specific task. It would run in a protected partition on the mainframe and be completely transparent to staff except for performing its particular task. It would perform that task flawlessly, no human hands or System z skills involved.

System z Appliances

System z data center managers should be familiar with appliances. IBM offers DataPower and Netezza hardware-software-firmware appliances that connect with System z. These aren’t, however, appliances integral to the System z.

Likewise, depending on how loosely you define System z software appliance, you might consider the IBM System z coupling facility as a software appliance. These appliances “run in their own partitions, essentially proprietary partitions, and greatly facilitate operating and managing z/OS,” says Jim Porell, IBM Distinguished Engineer and formerly part of the System z team. Now he’s deputy CTO, IBM Federal Sales. However, if appliances are meant to simplify the platform and lower its cost of ownership over the long term—thus, ultimately, growing the platform—these appliances do not. They are simply more elements of the systems management infrastructure.

Software appliances combine enough of a software application and just enough OS code to run on certain hardware or as a virtual machine. Clients benefit from these solutions because of their simplified deployment, operations and management. The complexity that normally comes with the usual software installation and configuration is hidden, which leads to a more stable and secure operation. Furthermore, you don’t need to have skills that pertain to the underlying OS and software stack.

At the IBM Systems Optimization Competency Center (SOCC), many people had been long thinking about software appliances and particularly virtual appliances for System z. “The virtual appliance seemed a natural fit. It offered more than encapsulation of image and included enough of the operating system, particularly z/OS, to do its task,” says Roland Seiffert, senior technical lead.

The mainframe is a deeply virtualized machine to begin with, so a virtual software appliance seemed like a natural. Virtual appliances are a subset of software appliances. The main distinction is the packaging format and the specificity of the target platform. A virtual appliance image is designed to run on a specific virtualization platform while a software appliance is often packaged in a more generally applicable image format that enables installations on various physical machines and multiple types of virtual machines. System z technology looked like a natural for a virtual software appliance.

Because a software appliance can hide complicated platform specifics, the appliance concept is a particularly good fit for System z, which is considered particularly complex. It usually needs to be configured precisely to the user and workload. A System z software appliance would come factory-configured and optimized for the particular workload with plug-and-play deployment.

The idea of a System z virtual software appliance clearly picked up steam at SOCC. To evaluate the technology and its potential benefits, a team built a fully functional prototype of a simple appliance that could be automatically deployed and managed without any system-specific skills for installation, configuration and management. This prototype made it clear that the approach would represent a radical simplification step and could provide high value to System z users.

Enter IBM zAware

IBM System z Advanced Workload Analysis Reporter (IBM zAware), packaged with the zEnterprise EC12 (zEC12), has become a model for what future System z software appliances might look like. “There is a set of functionality that is a logical extension of the machine. Just build something like a software image but package it as firmware and make it logically as part of the box. Then it can consider its relationship with other things on the box,” says Jeff Frey, IBM Fellow and CTO, System z.

As a group of SOCC engineers and managers described it at a recent briefing, IBM zAware, which combines analytics with a hidden underlying OS stack, seemed to be a natural fit as a virtual software appliance. It needed more than a simple encapsulation of image; it needed enough of the OS itself, yet still needed to be completely opaque, install on a click, and operate itself.

IBM zAware detects and diagnoses anomalies in z/OS systems by creating a model of normal system behavior based on prior system data and utilizing advanced analytics to identify unexpected messages in current data stream coming from the z/OS systems it’s monitoring. In effect, it provides nearly real-time detection of anomalies that someone can easily view through a GUI.

Beyond IBM zAware

Others at IBM have more ideas about what might be done with a virtual System z software appliance. This isn’t just a technical problem but an internal IBM problem; the various advocates have to get IBM behind the particular appliance.

Porell, for example, has long advocated virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) on System z, which could make an appealing software appliance. With a virtual System z software appliance, an organization could virtualize tens of thousands of personal desktop instances on a centrally managed System z and experience all the RAS capabilities of the mainframe.

For now the SOCC team is kicking around other ideas, including a virtual appliance for security analytics that would make sense of security audit logs, essentially IBM zAware for security logs. The possibilities, however, are wide open. Now that SOCC knows how to build the virtual software compliance container, it just comes down to market demand. So mainframe data center managers should ask themselves, “What would I want a virtual System z appliance to handle?”

Alan Radding is freelance writer specializing in business and technology. He can be reached through his Web site, http://technologywriter.com



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