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.