The unbearable lightness of being: mainframe on the cloud

By | 4 minute read | July 15, 2019

Some time ago, having the words “cloud” and “mainframe” in the same phrase was considered implausible or even impossible. Working with mainframe-related technologies or even directly with any mainframe applications was always associated with green screens, blocky letters and this feeling of old technology.

We could say this feeling still exists among a lot of people, but mainframes evolved significantly over the last decade and writing mainframe and cloud-oriented technologies together is no longer a heresy. It is true that some z/OS tasks still remain hidden to most of us, like installing and configuring programs. That offers a challenge to customers to try IBM Z Systems Solutions before engaging their operations teams. However, as the old saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Currently, IBM tech sales can use a mainframe emulator called Z Development and Test (ZD&T) to demonstrate IBM Z Systems solutions. ZD&T is capable of emulating mainframe hardware, like VMware is capable of emulating x86 machines. Because it emulates the real z/OS and its subsystems, it can be installed and used for demonstrations. The same approach can be utilized by our customers for testing, but the need for a machine, virtual or not, can result in long wait times.

Enter the cloud. Around mid-2013, IBM acquired SoftLayer Technologies (now IBM Cloud), the world’s largest privately held cloud computing infrastructure provider at the time. The goal was to strengthen IBM’s leadership position in cloud computing. A couple of years after the acquisition, ZD&T became certified to run as a virtual machine on SoftLayer, the impossible became possible, and IBM Z Trial Program was born. Finally, the words mainframe and cloud could be used in the same phrase. A dedicated, no-charge, no-installation-required, available-in-two-hours mainframe became reality.

Before we delve into the technology and awesomeness of Z Trial, let’s use some data to describe what Z Trial is capable of. Anytime and anywhere in the world, someone can choose among 22 mainframe-oriented trials and use it for 3 days. In fact, even IBM Tech Sales is now using Z Trial infrastructure to deliver demos and workshops where each participant has its own mainframe. In a given month, 500 Z Trial instances are created, used and destroyed. The absolute record so far is 1500 instances created to support trials, demos and workshops during an IBM conference.

But what does Z Trial cloud-based infrastructure look like? First and foremost, we need to know who the customer is and where in the world they are located. This allow us to feed our marketing tools and instruct our cloud infrastructure on where to automatically provision the machines and send email notifications. In reality, any Z Trial and most demo or workshop instances are composed of a Windows client and a Linux Server.

The Windows client hosts the demo tutorial for many Z software products. On the Linux side, all necessary servers and ZD&T are installed. Both client and server are connected to a VLAN to keep the communication secure and contained. Additionally, to avoid any access issues, IBM Z Trial exposes the Windows virtual machine using SSL and therefore there is no need for any special ports, like Remote Desktop, to be opened on the customer’s side.

However, the magic of a bespoke “available anywhere in two hours” mainframe doesn’t happen without automatic provisioning. Due to the way the IBM external website works and interacts with IBM Cloud infrastructure, the decision to build a custom Python based provisioning toolset was made. By using IBM Cloud APIs, Z Trial is capable of creating and attaching block storage, and deploying instances on selected data centers spread all over the world. Considerations about availability and privacy were made and specific parts of the infrastructure were duplicated for each data center. In fact, each data center is quite independent, and the only common contact points are the IBM external Z Trial web page and the duplication service used to keep all master images in sync.

Last but not least, let’s talk about monitoring. With hundreds of Z Trial instances running in any given moment, it’s paramount to know if everything is running as expected and how many resources are being used. Fortunately, IBM Cloud offers a mobile app. It provides a quick look at how many servers are up or down, the bandwidth being used, any infrastructure events, support tickets, and the next bill to pay. Each category described above can be drilled down, allowing for individual instances to be managed.

The IBM Z Trial is a successful cloud-based implementation of a mainframe environment. It can easily be reused to support any mainframe development activities, from traditional maintenance up to DevOps CI/CD pipelines, with Jenkins automatically provisioning necessary mainframe instances to build and unit-test code.

So, what’s next for Z Trial? What about going after another task previously considered to be impossible. Let’s use “mainframe” and “Kubernetes” in the same phrase. Stay tuned for the next episode…

For more information on Z Trial, click here.

For more information about the technology that powers Z Trial, click here.