Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Aging Mainframer

A continuing, lingering perception that the mainframe is dead continues on in some parts of the IT industry. It seems that we constantly hear that big IT shops are getting 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 many more that 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 reality. If you don't believe me, go to a SHARE conference and fix your eyeballs on some of the dinosaurs attending mainframe sessions there (myself included).

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 all work on 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 really needs to change. What is needed is a comprehensive educational program delivered through major universities, as well as IT-focused institutions like DeVry and NorthFace universities. The program should be sponsored by major 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. An ongoing mainframe program in the universities will help to further promote and extend the mainframe. And that is goodness.

And why would universities be interested in such a program? Employability of their graduates! As the current crop of mainframe experts retire, companies will have to replace them. I'd venture to guess that 10 years or so down the line, it will be easier for an IMS DBA, for example, to get a job offer than an Oracle DBA. The demand will be greater for the IMS talent because the supply is so low.

The publicity component is a bit more difficult. So much has been written and implied about the mainframe being dead 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 MIPS, 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"?

This posting is a slightly revised version of a piece I wrote for Search390.com.
If you'd like to read the original,
click here (registration required).


Anonymous said...

I am a mainframer albeit young to this profession and I was greatly enthused after reading this article. You are quite correct in pointing out that in order to change the perception of people regarding mainframes it's better that Mainframe gets marketed under a different name altogether.

Anonymous said...

My company is getting rid of its Mainframe application and switching to the .Net environment with C#, (as are many other firms in the Orlando area). The reason? Competition. Slow connection for our users on the Web. We tried the screen scraping with a Web face. It didn't work. In the meantime, the "dinosaur" programmers you mention are being laid off (with anywhere from 10 to 20 years before retirement) and have nowhere to go unless they retrain and re-educate themselves with classes in the programs of the 21st century. You are not being honest with yourself or anyone else if you think colleges will go back to teaching COBOL and Fortran. Wake up and smell the coffee. It is the cold, hard truth that you better start burying your Mainframe along with your skills because they're no longer needed, or wanted. I learned the hard way.

Anonymous said...

I think, perhaps, the above comment misunderstands my intent. I am not saying that COBOL and Fortran should be required college courses (I didn't need COBOL for my college degree in Computer Science many years ago). But COBOL is not dead - far from it.

The mainframe is not going to go away either. Yes, there are some shops that will abandon their mainframes. But the vast majority of the largest and richest organizations on the planet will continue to use mainframes. And they will use them properly (no "slow connections") and intelligently (with newer interfaces, programming languages, and so on).

I hope no one misunderstood me to be saying that all you need is knowledge of COBOL and JCL to succeed in today's IT world...

Anonymous said...

Not only that, but you can still run your vintage 1968 COBOL apps on the same box. And you get all of this without having to increase your datacenter rack space, power and cooling utilization, property taxes, etc.

Sounds like a winner to me!

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