Business units might use a credit card to buy some extra compute cycles for a one-time project, for example, but most companies wouldn't run mission-critical transaction-processing applications in the cloud.
The one cloud scenario that includes self-provisioning is the model used by global outsourcing companies, where far-flung developers have the ability to automatically set up their own testing and development platforms. Those aren't all mainframe-based, but Murphy thinks some of them must be.
Mullen agrees that the offshoring model is a good example. A platform-as-a-service setup like that "is perhaps the dominant usage of a cloud infrastructure in mainframe environments today," he says.
But as cloud computing matures and as new models of mainframes begin to offer more computing power at lower costs than they do today, more companies will experiment with the mainframe-based cloud. Hurwitz, for one, says many of her clients are looking into it, although none are ready to talk about it publicly. "It's something we're going to see a lot more of," she predicts.
The very early adopter
Marist College is a poster child for IBM mainframes. The college is right down the road from an IBM mainframe manufacturing plant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Marist has had a research-and-development partnership with IBM for more than 20 years, and it helped IBM develop and roll out System z Linux.
Marist has rewritten many x86-based applications to run on Linux on its two System z mainframes. The college runs 80 Linux servers, mostly handling administrative tasks, on one mainframe, and it has more than 600 Linux servers running academic applications on the other.
The college runs other applications on an IBM System p midrange computer and IBM blades as well. But the mainframes are "the real engine," says Bill Thirsk, Marist's CIO.
Marist is getting big cost benefits from virtualizing on the mainframe. The college avoids purchasing extra server hardware, plus it saves on space, power and IT staff to manage the data center. It not only avoids having to pay extra for each application it adds to the mainframe, but also benefits from increased utilization of the mainframe, resulting in a very good return on assets, says Thirsk. He calls Marist's setup a cloud.
Skeptics would say it's not a cloud, because it has no user provisioning. But there is some provisioning going on: When students enroll to study computer science, for example, they are automatically provisioned with a mainframe partition, Thirsk says. And when they leave the school, he adds, "that's sucked back into the fold and re-allocated automatically."
Though critics might disagree, Thirsk says the lack of user provisioning isn't important.
"The fact is that if you wanted to change the policy [to] where the student could just order it, it would come down to the same auto-provisioning routine," he says. "We do it more explicitly because it's an academic institution. The faculty decide what resources get used by students, depending on their courses."
Marist has advantages that make building a mainframe-based cloud easier. It gets an academic discount on the mainframes, although the price breaks aren't any larger than those available to other universities, says Thirsk. And thanks to an IBM-sponsored mainframe academic program at the college, Marist has a built-in, cheap source of IT labor with mainframe and System z Linux skills.
"Where one CIO might have to hire very expensive professionals to run their data center, I have an entire internship program, and my labor's fairly inexpensive," Thirsk notes. "I only have three professionals to supervise."