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The Ultimate Install Fest: Linux on the IBM System/390

Recycling the Mainframe with Linux

  • July 31, 2000
  • By Scott Courtney

Let's say you've been using a fairly mainstream, commercial operating system for a few years on your company's computer. You keep hearing about this thing called "Linux" and it sounds interesting, but you never used UNIX before and that makes you a little nervous about Linux.

Then one day you hear about a thing called an"Install Fest." Supposedly there will be Linux experts on hand to help get that first, trickiest installation up and running in just a couple of hours. Terrific! Stuff the CPU in the back seat of the car and toss the cables in the trunk, and head on over to your local Linux User Group (LUG). By the end of the day, you're running the latest Linux kernel--coexisting with your old operating system--and you think you just might be starting to understand this Linux phenomenon.

It is a scene that's been repeated endlessly, all around the world. Only this time there is a slight problem: the company mainframe won't fit in the back seat!

By now just about everyone involved with Linux knows that, among its many other ports, Linux is now available for IBM System/390 (S/390) mainframe systems (see accompanying photo). If you've ever had the fun of installing it on an S/390, you know that the first time through the process it can be quite daunting. From the beginning, there is a gap in terminology. If you are a mainframe administrator, you know all about how to allocate DASD and LPARs, how to set up IUCV and SNA communications, and how to IPL a few VMs--but the concept of grepping the stdout of sed sounds like line noise to you! If, instead, you come from the UNIX side of the house, the same logic applies but in reverse. The problem with putting Linux on a mainframe is that you really need to know both UNIX-like commands and mainframe administration.

To help alleviate the knowledge gap, IBM engineers and management in Germany came up with the idea of a Linux for S/390 "Install Fest" which would work almost like the local install fests run by LUGs around the world. The leader of the Install Fest project is Alex Stark, Manager of Linux for S/390 Design and Development. At 35, Stark has the enviable job of leading the team that develops new code for Linux on S/390 hardware. Stark's team of 25 developers is fully dedicated to the Linux on S/390 effort, and they saw this project as a way to get closer to the customer and learn how to improve the installation process. At the same time they hope to spur even more interest in the Linux for S/390 port, which has already seen over four thousand downloads.

The Install Fest itself was done in a virtual meeting space, over a combination of Internet and telephone. Customers signed up in advance, specifying what days were best for their schedule, and IBM set up conference calls with four to six customers and as many IBM engineers as needed. According to Kathy Grabarits, Manager of IBM's System/390 New Technology Center, there were around twenty IBM engineers on call during each Install Fest teleconference. A small core team would moderate and lead the conference, but they could call on any of the twenty to get an immediate resolution for any technical problems. Grabarits says the installation process usually takes between thirty minutes and four hours, depending on the knowledge level of the customer.

Customers, of course, had to do the actual installation on their own mainframes. There was a pre-installation checklist and site survey, and the customer also had to make a virtual tape image (or a real tape) from the SuSE Linux CD media sent out from IBM. According to Grabarits, there have been very few Linux-specific trouble reports during the installations so far. A few customers, she says, needed some offline assistance with the preparatory phase. To keep from holding up everyone on a conference call, these folks are transferred to another engineering team, in effect becoming their own one-customer Install Fest.

In keeping with the "festival" theme of the event, the package IBM sent out to each participant included party hats and other toys--so much for IBM's blue-suited corporate image! No one on the Linux-390 e-mail list has yet admitted to actually wearing the party hats, but maybe they're just not telling. The most important item, though, was a brand-new boxed distribution of SuSE Linux, including both Intel and S/390 ports on a half-dozen CDROMs.

The Install Fest conference calls began on July 15 and will end around the first of August. IBM's Alex Stark was ecstatic about the success of the program, and says there is a very good chance it will be repeated. Over 150 customers signed up for the Install Fest from countries as diverse as Austria, France, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States. According to Stark, at least thirty of these sites were from IBM's "Top 1500" list of corporate customers.


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