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California Budget Battle Highlights IBM's Mainframe Work

There's little doubt that the budget standoff in California between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and State Controller John Chiang comes down to politics. But it also raises the issue of older legacy technology, and how long is too long to hang onto it. It also highlights the importance of initiatives from vendors like IBM, which is aggressively promoting the development of mainframe skills among younger programmers to replace the older mainframers who are retiring.

In case you missed it, Schwarzenegger recently signed an executive order that would cut the pay of some 200,000 state workers to mininum-wage levels as a way of putting pressure on the state legislature to quickly close a $15 billion deficit and approve a budget. California is more than a month into its new fiscal year and still has no budget.

However, Chiang says that can't happen. The Sacramento Bee reported Aug. 5 that Chiang told state lawmakers that because of the age of the state's payroll system, which is based on COBOL, it would take at least six months to reconfigure the system to send out those new minimum-wage checks. Then, when the order is reversed and those 200,000 can go back to getting regular pay, it would take another 10 months or so to get the system back to where it was.

"It's an example of a number of computer systems in which the state made a large investment decades ago and has been keeping it going the last few years with duct tape," Michael Cohen, director of state administration with the Legislative Analyst's Office, told the Bee.

The issue of legacy systems has been debated for years. Last year, Gartner researchers said the decline in the number of legacy-system experts should convince businesses to begin migrating away from their mainframe system to more modern technology. That said, Clabby Analytics countered that argument, saying that if the mainframe systems--known for their performance and security--work well, then businesses should stay with them, and that the expertise was out there if needed.

IBM is trying to make sure of that. Over the past several years, Big Blue and its SHARE user group have rolled out programs designed to entice incoming programmers to learn mainframe technology (including COBOL) and the z/OS operating system.

IBM's Academic Initiative for System z is now in more than 250 colleges and universities globally, touching more than 10,000 students. IBM and SHARE also created zNextGen, a community for new mainframe professionals. There also is the z/OS Basic Skills Information Center for people already in the work force. And going in the opposite direction, IBM officials said ealier this year they are taking advantage of SHARE and zNextGen to make high school students aware of the possibilities of careers working on mainframes.

All this is important to IBM, which is continuing to see its mainframe business thrive. In the second quarter of its 2008 fiscal year, IBM saw z mainframe revenues jump 32 percent over the same period last year, and System z computing power--measured in MIPS, or millions of instructions per second--grow 34 percent.

There is the threat of a widening skills gap out there between aging mainframers and new programmers coming into the industry, a gap highlighted by the budget fight going on in California. But no one can say IBM isn't doing what it can to narrow that gap.