The mainframe rolls on

Rumours of the mainframe’s death are greatly exaggerated. Well, somewhat exaggerated anyway.

p>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.”

“Although many organizations have been gradually replacing their old applications, the speed of their demise has often proved to be more wishful thinking than anything else,” says Catherine Aczel Boivie, senior vice-president of information technology at Pacific Blue Cross in Burnaby, B.C. “There are many 30-year-old applications out there.” It’s often tough to make a business case for rewriting those applications, Boivie says.

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 are acquainted 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 knowhow 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.

Boivie says people with mainframe experience are getting harder to find – though she adds that IT skills in general are in high demand. Pacific Blue Cross has a good staff of mainframe experts today, she says, but “many of those people are approaching retirement age and in recent years, people coming into the work force do not have mainframe skills.”

According to Michael Hobbs, national information technology practice leader at David Aplin Recruiting in Vancouver, experienced mainframe programmers are retiring and younger people are avoiding the platform because they see it as behind the times. One recruiter in Hobbs’ group recently located, with some difficulty, four candidates for a mainframe job opening in Calgary, but none were hired. One of those candidates has 25 years of mainframe experience but is applying for data-entry jobs.

Some employers are abandoning their mainframes and laying off people with mainframe-related skills, Warren says, but there is demand for those skills in organizations that still run mainframes. “It’s almost as if they have to find each other,” she concludes.

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.

And IBM is reaching out to IT people trained on newer technologies. Besides offering Linux as an alternative operating system for the System Z, Bird says, the company is incorporating open standards into its mainframe technology that will look very familiar to people trained on Linux and Java.

Despite all this, the mainframe’s future is probably one of gradual decline, Warren says. Bird acknowledges the market in North American and Europe is mature, but he also says room for growth remains in developing countries, notably Brazil, Russia, India and China. “That’s where we’re seeing an uptick in terms of new clients to System Z.”

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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