Small mainframe software Automan disrupting big rivals

A small Canadian company is helping cash-strapped schools, hospitals, and public institutions keep their big iron humming.

Owning and operating a mainframe has never been cheap. Forget the initial cost of buying one: you’ll be paying big bucks in upgrades, licencing fees and having your IT staff program and operate the machines. With the old guard of mainframe pros retiring, and the difficulty in getting a new generation interested in the mainframe world, it’s only getting harder to find the right people.

Mainframe automation software can ease some of the burden on your IT staff. If you’re a big bank, you can probably afford the hundreds of thousands it costs to buy it from the likes of CA Technologies Inc. or BMC Software Inc.

But what if you’re budget-conscious Canadian hospital? Perhaps looking to a smaller player is the answer.

Simon Spanchak, CTO at Ottawa-based Exspans Systems Inc., says his flagship mainframe automation software, Automan, provides the answer.

“We created Automan specifically for this niche market, for hospitals, universities, and public services, basically to give them a break,” he says.

His product will typically cost around $15,000, a bargain, Spanchak says, when it comes to this type of software.

“Automan is built in segments,” he says. “With mainstream [companies] like Computer Associates, you have to buy the entire product and pay for everything. So, what we did with Automan is we made pieces of it optional so the user only pays for the pieces they want.

“If they decide they want more functionality, then we give them a key and it unlocks more functionality and then they pay a little bit more. But the pricing of Automan is an entire scale of difference … a company with a 500 MIPS [million instructions per second] machine can have Automan for $15,000, or go to Computer Associates and pay $350,000 for the same functionality.”

Then there are licencing fees. Often mainframe licencing fees are charged based on the total capacity of the machine, says Frank Trovato, a research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. “Let’s say your mainframe has 10,000 MIPS capacity,” he says. “You’re charged for that whole 10,000 MIPs.”

Customers are sometimes not pleased with this arrangement if they aren’t using the full capacity of their machines. So, some vendors will charge only according to the capacity used, what they refer to as “sub-capacity pricing.”

“If you’re only actually using 1,000 of those MIPs, sub-capacity pricing basically means you only pay licencing fees for the 1,000, not the 10,000,” Trovato says.

Still, Automan is an even more economical choice, he adds. “He [Spanchak] basically charges a flat fee. And that’s why his product can be significantly less expensive than other products.”

John Skrobek, a system programmer for the Ottawa Hospital’s IBM z10 mainframe, says Automan replaced the old version of IBM Netview that the hospital had used for 26 years. The hospital has now been running Automan for several months, following a trial period.

Skrobek says he has taken a liking to the software, especially since he was able to customize it to resemble something eminently familiar to him. “I did the initial setup of this product and I made it look like our old legacy Netview from IBM. It was quite easy just to set up the automation.”

Spanchak says the Ottawa Hospital is “delighted” with the price they paid for the software. “In fact, Automan is priced so they can pay it out of a different operational budget. They don’t have to pay for it out of a major acquisition budget the way they have to do for other software.”

Automan is written in a programming language Exspans Systems developed called GAL (Generalized Automation Language) for IBM zOS and OS/390 platforms. Automan can be run on IBM mainframe models dating back to the early 1990s.

 “It’s an extremely high-level language,” explains Spanchak. “You could think of it as Java – no, even higher-level than Java. It uses IF-THEN-ELSE constructs like a high-level language program in which you query statuses of programs, subsystems and even other machines within your complex.”

Skrobek says GAL can be used for both simple and complex automation, depending on what you want it to do. When he first set up Automan, “I used very little of the GAL,” he says. A colleague, by contrast, is using it more extensively to write automation scripts.

“You could go either way,” says Skrobek. “The product is efficient whether you use very little GAL or a lot.”

Command-line interface not for everyone

Automation of mainframe processes is, at its core, a way of simplifying things, as well as of reducing human error. But many large enterprises are unwilling to use automation software like Automan that uses a command-line, non-GUI interface, even one powered by a high-level language.

The pricier automation software out there can be as easy as drag-and-drop, explains Forrester Research Inc. analyst Jean-Pierre Garbani. Command-line software, he says, “makes life more complicated” for employees who would have to be trained to use the language.

But it’s not uncommon for capacity planning software to be created by independent coders. “Usually mainframes are relatively-I’m going to shock you here-they are relatively small operations.,“ he says.
Automan simply wouldn’t work in a large enterprise with 15,000 servers running multiple different platforms, he adds. But Automan is powerful enough to be used on a large scale, assuming a mainframe-only environment.

“Automan is not a transaction-based system. It’s not dependent upon the number of transactions. It really doesn’t matter how much other work they do. All it’s doing is monitoring and running the operations. So, the actual number of transactions or inquiries is actually completely irrelevant.”

“It’s got every bit of the power of all the other automation products.”

Automan users tend to agree. As Skrobek at the Ottawa Hospital puts it, “we’re a small shop, but I think it’s robust enough to work in a large operation because of the programming language it comes with. I think for either environment, whether you’re small or large, it could do quite a lot.”

Spanchak has found a place where Automan’s potential power can be demonstrated – large financial institutions in Europe, where approaches to computing can differ quite markedly from those in North America.
“Mainframes are very, very popular in Germany,” Spanchak says, “and they have a tendency towards old-fashioned, solid engineering thinking. So, they’ll have a couple of mainframes that are hooked together through a Sysplex, and they’ll also have a backup site at a service provider.”

The price he charges these enterprises is comparable to what he asks from non-profits, he says. But such organizations are unwilling to speak publicly about buying a low-cost mainframe product for fear it would be interpreted as a sign of their having financial difficulties, rather than simply a case of being frugal.

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