Sunday, 5 February 2012

Linux divisions

Linus Torvalds released Linux on 5 October 1991, and by 1998 IBM was experimenting with it. In 2000 it was properly available on mainframes – along with the specialty processor IFL (Integrated Facility for Linux). The rest, as they say, is history.

As well as mainframes, Linux, of course, runs on desktops and servers. The Mac OS is based on Unix, but Android – found on millions of smartphones and tablets – is based on Linux.

So what divisions am I talking about? The division between big iron and little? Well not really. In fact, interestingly, the people at William Data Systems have come out with a way of monitoring Linux whether it’s on a mainframe or server somewhere else in the world. As long as it has an IP address, they have a way of monitoring it (using z/OS as the hub).

No, the first division I want to look at is the division between the USA (or North America, I should say) and Europe. The recent Arcati Mainframe Yearbook user survey (still freely available at came up with some interesting results. The survey found that  70% of European sites surveyed didn't have Linux, whereas only 28% of North American sites in the surveyed didn’t. That’s a huge difference. And if you were IBM, you might well be wondering why Linux isn’t selling into Europe so well as North America.

Let’s speculate. Is it that North America is well ahead of the curve in terms of take up of mainframe Linux? Is it that mainframe Linux is priced differently either side of the pond so it encourages the take up in the USA but not Europe? Or could it be that IFLs are marked up or down depending on whether the customer is EMEA-based or not? Are IFLs being bundled in with upgrades or not depending on where in the world you’re based? I have recently had some nudges and winks over prices, and it could well be that European mainframe users are being charged double what their US-based counterpart might expect to pay. I’d be interested to hear what figure people, who’ve recently negotiated with IBM, have haggled them down to. You might also wonder whether now is a good time to buy shares in SuSE, who have about an 80% share of the mainframe Linux market. Will we see it suddenly explode in Europe? Or not?

The other division that’s recently cropped up with Linux is how users navigate. I guess we’re all pretty much familiar with using drop-down menus to access what we want – and we can probably use them to find our way around familiar applications without even thinking about it. Even very young childen take to that way of navigating like it was second nature. But just recently we’ve seen the introduction of Heads Up Displays (HUDs) for Ubuntu’s Linux.

What you get is a sort of semi-transparent area at the top of the screen, which acts in some ways like the ribbon with Office. HUD provides a search style interface that uses a Vocabulary UI (VUI). Users start to type or say a command, and the HUD starts a smart look-ahead search through the application and system (indicator) menus. By combining fuzzy matching with a learning function, the HUD begins to ‘recognize’ the actions of each individual user.

If you want to give it a go, HUD will be available in Ubuntu 12.04 towards the end of April.

Now I’m guessing that, like Microsoft’s ribbon, and Marmite, users will either love it or hate it. The idea that it will use voice indicates to me that we’re back to the original Star Trek computer idea – a computer that you can talk to. This was an idea that went away for a while because, to be honest, voice reconition software just wasn’t up to the job. But now we’ve had Siri on iPhones for a while, and people are coming back to the idea that talking to a computer isn’t such a silly idea after all.

I’ve only spoken to one person who’s used the HUD and he was singing its praises. But he is very familiar with Linux and the Ubuntu distro, so maybe he had a clearer idea of what to ask the HUD to do for him – in terms of getting any work done – than, for example, I might have.

Perhaps one day we’ll see a HUD on mainframe Linux. And perhaps we’ll see more mainframe Linux sites in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Or will the divisions continue?

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