Though it dominated the computing world until the 1970s, the proprietary mainframe computer has been the subject of an on-again/off-again death watch ever since. Yet IBM Corp.‘s venerable 360 architecture is still around, in the form of the company’s System Z server line. And large organizations are still using it, and even buying new machines.

Case in point, IBM Canada has just announced that the University of Toronto purchased a new System z9 Business Class mainframe. This isn’t a net new mainframe installation – the new z9 BC replaced an older IBM mainframe this spring, according to Eugene Siciunas, director of computing and networking services at the university. But it illustrates that U of T is expecting the mainframe to be around for a while yet.

“It’s dictated by the application that we’re running,” Siciunas says. “Our student registration system is written for MVS (the principal IBM mainframe operating system, now referred to a z/OS)…. We don’t change applications that large very frequently.”

Large organizations aren’t keeping their mainframes solely because they’re stuck with legacy applications, though. Siciunas says the System z is highly secure – partly because the relatively small number of such machines makes them less of a target for hackers than, say, Windows.

For years the mainframe has also been seen as a more stable platform than newer systems like Windows and Linux. But that gap is narrowing as the other operating systems improve, says Michelle Warren, an analyst at Partner Research Corp. in Toronto.

The mainframe is also handicapped by the fact that not as many IT professionals are familiar with it as they are with systems such as Windows and Linux. Few people going into IT today are making an effort to acquire mainframe skills, Warren says, and few established IT professionals who don’t already have mainframe know-how seek it out. “They’re not investing in it – they’re opting for Linux and Windows.”

Siciunas agrees that mainframe-experienced staff are thin on the ground, but says the University of Toronto has little turnover in its mainframe operations staff – he is not responsible for the applications development side of the house – and meets its staffing needs largely by training internally.

IBM is trying to address the skills issue in more than one way. According to Robert Bird, System Z brand manager for IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont., the company works with mainframe customers and schools to promote mainframe-related training programs. IBM is aiming to have 20,000 people worldwide graduate with mainframe skills by 2010, he says.

IBM is also trying to close the gap by making its System Z machines easier to use. Last week, the company announced a “five-year march to mainframe simplification” that includes adding automated configuration checking, a modernized – or “GUIfied,” as Bird puts it – user interface, improved software and asset management technologies and visual development tools.

Siciunas is not convinced those moves will make a significant difference to experienced mainframe personnel. He adds, though, that the machines are already considerably simpler to run than they once were.

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