A continuing, lingering perception that the mainframe is dead continues on in some parts of the IT industry. It seems that we constantly hear about IT shops that are planning to get rid of their mainframes. But rarely do we ever hear about it after the fact. No, it is usually reported right when someone thinks that it is a good idea.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are some shops that have removed their mainframe. But I’m also sure that there are quite a few that have tried and failed, or thought about it but couldn’t do it — as well as those who wouldn’t even consider it.

A bigger problem for the mainframe than the misguided notion that it is more costly than other computing platforms is the aging of the mainframe workforce. This is a reasonable concern. If you don’t believe me, go to a SHARE conference and fix your eyeballs on some of the dinosaurs attending mainframe sessions there. Sure, there are some younger folks, but there is a lot of gray hair at SHARE.

Basically, the problem is that mainframe experts are getting older and slowly retiring. And who will replace them? Most young IT professionals do not choose to work on mainframe systems, instead choosing to concentrate on the “latest” technology bandwagons — things like Windows and Linux, open source, and so on. Put one of these newbies in front of a terminal and introduce them to the joys of JCL, ISPF and COBOL, then watch them scream out the door yelling “I want my Java!”

And who can blame them? But this is actually an inaccurate perception. You see, mainframe no longer means ugly old green screens. Today’s mainframe environment is quite different from the mainframe of yesteryear. That hulking, water-cooled beast you may remember has been replaced with chip-based, CMOS, air-cooled systems. Today’s mainframes are easier to hook together using Parallel Sysplex technology. And all of the “modern” technology used on Windows and Linux platforms works on the mainframe, too. Yes, that means XML, TCP/IP, Java and so on… they all work on (and with) the mainframe, too.

Nowadays, the biggest mainframe “problems” are training and PR. Let’s focus on training first. Mainframe technology is not taught by most universities these days; this should change though I’m not sure it will. What is needed is a comprehensive educational program delivered through major universities, as well as IT-focused institutions like DeVry and ITT Technical Institute. The program could be sponsored by IBM and other mainframe vendors, which could provide hardware and software, as well as a conduit for hiring graduates. Actually, IBM is doing something just like this nowadays with its Academic Initiative. And SHARE sponsors zNextGen, a user-driven community for new and emerging z System (mainframe) professionals that provides resources and training to help expedite young professional’s development of mainframe skills. Ongoing mainframe programs like these will help to further promote and extend the mainframe. But more participants (students, organizations, and universities) are needed to spread the word.

But why would universities, organizations, and individuals be interested in such a program? For universities, how about the employability of their graduates? As the current crop of mainframe experts retire, companies will have to replace them. And therein lies the interest for organizations with mainframes to help train new blood. I’d venture to guess a decade or so from now it might be easier for a knowledgeable IMS DBA, for example, to get a job offer than a MySQL DBA. The demand could be greater for the IMS talent because the supply will be (some might say is) so low.

The PR and publicity component is a bit more difficult to tackle. So much has been written and implied about the mainframe’s death that a lot folks believe it. But the mainframe continues to be a robust, viable component of today’s IT infrastructure. Organizations continue to add more capacity (MSUs), deploy more applications and run their most important, mission-critical applications on mainframe computers. Until this aspect of the mainframe is publicized more, the existing perception is likely to linger.

Or maybe we should just give the mainframe a new name and pretend that it is a new technology with better availability, scalability and performance than the existing platforms – how about a name like the “AlwaysAvailable”?

Nah… no need to rename it. It is a mainframe and we should be loud and proud in our support of it. Because the mainframe ain’t going anywhere any time soon.

Regular Planet Mainframe Blog Contributor
Craig Mullins is President & Principal Consultant of Mullins Consulting, Inc., and the publisher/editor of The Database Site. Craig also writes for many popular IT and database journals and web sites, and is a frequent speaker on database issues at IT conferences. He has been named by IBM as a Gold Consultant and an Information Champion. He was recently named one of the Top 200 Thought Leaders in Big Data & Analytics by AnalyticsWeek magazine.

4 thoughts on “The Mainframe Dilemma: Coping With an Aging Workforce”
  1. Craig, great article. I am one of those “old” mainframe guys and always hear about the death of the mainframes. I think college graduates interested in computers should ask potential employers if they use mainframes and if so, are critical applications run on the mainframes? Once they hear the answer, they may be more interested in switching from servers to mainframes.

    PS. Still working doing License Management/Asset Management of Mainframe Software

    1. Good to hear, Len. And yes, I think that mainframe computing will be a viable on-going opportunity for younger computer professionals to pursue. As long as we keep training in mind!

  2. Craig, Let me start by saying I have tremendous respect for you as it was your books that taught me DB2. I was awed about the powers when I started reading about WLM Address spaces, SP address spaces and stuff like the various attachment facilities. In essence your book led me to where I am now, not great, but I truly believe good enough. So thanks. And thanks to this form of social media that’s allowing me to respond to you.
    Now hold on, did I say social media? Does that run on a mainframe? Hey what kind of a question is that. A mainframe is a server meant for running enterprise application, does social media apps belong to that class? Use a distributed cloud for god’s sake. Hold on isn’t cloud just another form of virtualization that the mainframes introduced in 1970’s? [*** REMOVED INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT ***]
    My point is if it was virtualized in 1970’s why did it not become the backbone of AWS (for instance)? Agree you ‘still’ can’t ignore the mainframe, yea, yea I know top furtune 500 companies use them, all major financial institutions use them, blah blah. Have been reading those and bragging to my distributed colleagues all about it. But have not been able to counter the statement why it is not a part of the stories of amazon’s, google’s, facebook’s, Twitter, netflix, linkedin, sakesforce, etc etc etc etc.
    What happened? Duh these are not even enterprises?
    Nah, the answer simply is a mind set. The mind set that has challenged a part (perhaps a big part) of the mainframe community from innovating, reinventing, presenting, and accepting that this is not the only platform. In my earlier days, one of the system programmers told me I work with the real computer. Ah ha the ego, killed it all, this tunnel vusion narrowed the scope. [*** REMOVED INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT ***]
    Has innovation stopped, nah. I have had the fortune of working with some great innovators who had taken some of these innovative distributed concepts and are re-inventining or further polishing them with the capabilities that this wonderful platform provides. We just need more of these. And these great mainframers that I had the fortune to work with has inspired a lot of millenials to say ‘hey i need to learn that piece’, just need a lot more. Craig you must have been to IBM’s z get-together’s, hopefully you have met some of them presenting before the world the various innovations that they have brought in. I just dream to be like one of them presenting before the world what it a mainframer can achive with an open mind, doesn’t have to be just open stack. I would love to have them as my mentors. So yes finally I do agree with you its about imparting knowledge, training in schools being only one form.

  3. Souvik- your question regarding – “amazon’s, google’s, facebook’s, Twitter, netflix, linkedin, sakesforce, etc etc etc etc.
    What happened?” is a fair question.
    And the reason is pretty simple – and it wasn’t so much mindset, at least initially.
    In most cases, these endeavors started out very small. Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook as a small website while attending Harvard University as a student. Starting it on a mainframe was not necessary nor was it a realistic expectation. Would Facebook benefit from running on a mainframe now? Probably. Would Facebook be able to reduce costs if it were ported to a mainframe? Probably. Will they do it? Probably not. Why? Cost of transition, for one thing. Is that a good reason? That’s a Facebook concern.
    Google started as a web search engine that competed with the big search players of the time (1990s) like Excite, AltaVista, Lycos and the like. Interestingly, these projects started at about the same time that everyone in the business (under the age of 30) thought that the mainframe was going to be extinct soon- like within a few years. So the thinking back then was likely, why would anyone start off on a platform that was so old and costly, and soon to be obsolete? Fast forward to today, when Google runs over a million servers- could they save some money by running on mainframe systems? Again, probably.
    Pretty much the same story for the other organizations that you mentioned- they all started off small – running on cheap distributed systems makes sense when you’re small. As they grew, changing out their infrastructure was that last thing on their minds- they just grew what they had. Gradually, they focused on reducing the cost of their existing services as much as possible, and passing on costs to their customers.
    I have many times heard the argument that if the mainframe is so great, why aren’t the biggest computing concerns using it? Well, it’s because of where they came from (small), not because of where they are now (big). Of course, now that they’re big, part of the reason they don’t switch to mainframe computing is in fact mindset, as you say.

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