Long Live the Mainframe

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2007-02-19

Long Live the Mainframe

I try to stay away from clichés. But try as you might, sometimes they just fit. Needless to say, the rumors of the mainframes demise have been greatly exaggerated. Thats right, I said it.

The mainframe is on my mind because the winter version of the semiannual Share conference of IBM mainframe users ran last week in Tampa, Fla. Unfortunately, I didnt make it (I was too busy covering events in icy New York), but I was able to speak with some folks who did.

IBM recently said the mainframe has achieved three consecutive quarters of growth, marked by new customers choosing the platform for the first time and existing customers adding new workloads, such as Linux and Java applications. Indeed, one company, Hoplon Infotainment, a Brazilian game developer, is even using the mainframe as the foundation of a massive multiplayer online game.

Plus, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for the mainframe, as my first job in the technology business was as an operator in a data center that housed a variety of equipment, including a bank of IBM System/370 machines running MVS, an IBM Series/1 minicomputer running RPS and a series of Perkin-Elmer minicomputers. There was even a group of DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) minicomputers—VAXes or PDPs or what have you; they were the property of a separate division that leased space in our facility, and I never got to touch them. But that was ages ago.

Read here about how IBM and some of its partners hope to renew interest in mainframes through partnerships with universities, new programs, new tools, and support for modern languages and architectures.

Now new folks are taking a look at the mainframe. Share teamed up with IBM to start zNextGen, a group of college students, recent graduates and older IT professionals who share a common interest in the mainframe as the core platform of focus for their careers. The older IT pros are mostly mentors to the younger folks, although some also are new to the platform.

And zNextGen is proving to be a breeding ground for new talent, with membership climbing to more than 200 since the program was launched in August 2005.

According Kristine Harper, the 23-year-old project manager of zNextGen, new inquiries come in weekly from professionals around the world looking to get involved. Harper, a software developer at Neon Enterprise Software, said she always knew she wanted to be a mainframe programmer. After all, both her father and mother are mainframe programmers.

"The energy surrounding the zNextGen project is tremendous," Harper said. And since the last Share event in Baltimore last August, "zNextGen has grown to 200-plus members, representing over 88 companies and six countries around the world," she said.

Harper calls zNextGen "a large community indeed, but through monthly calls, team calls, e-mails and our Web site, we have become quite a cohesive group."

Moreover, Harper said her group has taken many steps to further develop the program, including strengthening its relationships with other Share projects and the Share board of directors, adding depth to its technical education, fostering more participation among members, offering guidance to its members, and building up the groups sponsorship.

In addition, "we are working with the Share board to create an online communications forum for our members to better keep in touch with each other," Harper said. "Wed like to have a central place for zNextGen members to log in to and chat about mainframe topics, issues and technology, and communicate with the mentors in our group in some form of Q&A session. We are working on getting this launched as soon as possible."

Next Page: IBMs mainframe commitment.

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Meanwhile, IBM is making its own efforts to mobilize new talent. In 2000, IBM made a commitment to train 20,000 college students on the mainframe as part of its Academic Initiative on System z. The company already has surpassed that number with 23,000 students trained and nearly 300 colleges involved in the initiative. Adding to this effort, IBM last year launched a five-year, $100 million drive to dramatically simplify the platform.

Click here to read more about IBM spending $100 million over the next five years to make the mainframe easier to use.

With that in mind, at last weeks Share conference IBM announced a series of enhancements to software that are designed to enable professionals to more easily program, manage and administer a mainframe system—as well as to increasingly automate the development and deployment of applications for the mainframe environment. The enhancements covered security, systems and data management, and virtualization.

In a statement on the announcement, Jim Stallings, general manager for IBM System z, said, "These new software upgrades and enhancements to the System z software stack represent real progress toward the goal of making the mainframe easier to use and administer."

IBM announced DB2 9 for z/OS, a new version of the software that enables high-volume transaction processing for the next wave of Web applications and SOA (service-oriented architecture) environments. IBM also announced z/VM Version 5.3, which adds expanded scalability enhancements to IBMs z/VM virtualization technology. The new WebSphere Developer for System z V7.0 has new features for rapidly developing and deploying applications and for integrating existing applications with Web services and SOA. Other enhancements include WebSphere Service Registry and Repository for z/OS, V6.0; Consul zSecure Suite Version 1.8; and enhancements to IBM Tivoli Monitoring family of products.

Martin Timmerman, president of Share, said last weeks conference was geared to look at two main themes: IT 2010 and business resilience. The IT 2010 sessions focused on "preparing the business and the IT professional for three years hence," Timmerman said. "One of the highlights was SOA."

On the issue of business resilience, the conference offered sessions on keeping an enterprise going in the face of adversity. The sessions were set up to show that "you cant just recover from a disaster, you have to think of how you keep your business up and going" despite the disaster, Timmerman said.

Jim Michael, treasurer of Share, reiterated that SOA was a key thrust of the Share conference, in that there were more than 80 SOA-related sessions targeting application developers and systems engineers.

"A major attraction of SOA is the promise of reuse that it offers," Michael said.

And the mainframe is a solid citizen in a SOA environment, he said. "Thats where the data lives," Michael said. "And SOA is giving businesses another way to leverage that resource."

Meanwhile, IBM is trying out other ways to attract developers to the mainframe. At the end of January, IBM released PHP for Z/OS on its alphaWorks site.

PHP, the popular scripting language employed by Web developers throughout the world, features syntax that is similar to that of C and Perl, which makes it easy to learn for anyone with basic programming skills, according to IBM.

PHP for z/OS is a port of the PHP scripting language to the z/OS platform. Specifically, it ports PHP 5.1.2 to the z/OS platform. More information on the port can be found at here.

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