Making Mainframe Time Machines

Colleges, with IBM, use Linux to lure students back to the future.

On a brisk and sunny day at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the schools data processing facility overflows with life. An IBM S/390 mainframe computer, a new version of the age-old answer to corporate computing, hums like a vacuum cleaner. Students hop around the machines administrative terminal, noting information here and there, smiling, nodding, and occasionally high-fiving in approval. Toward the back of the room, other students crouch over PCs, monitoring the same information on Web browsers.

Harry Williams, the schools director of technology and systems, oversees this scene with a knowing smile. Last year, when most of Marists applications were written in out-of-fashion languages such as COBOL and FORTRAN, Williams couldnt pay students to come in and work on them. Today, however, with the mainframe running the Linux operating system, he said computer science students are so interested that some have volunteered their time.

This phenomenon is no coincidence; in an age when many young technophiles are turned off by anything older than client/server architecture, Marists move to Linux is part of a concerted effort by a number of universities, at the urging of IBM, to make mainframe skills more attractive. Rather than trying to teach students how to use the mainframe with old languages they perceive as boring, officials at these schools have opted to teach newer mainframe skills through technologies that are more fun and promise more value on future job markets.

Languages such as Java, C++ and SQL are all in this new mix, but at the core is Linux. And with recent statistics from International Data Corp. showing this operating system growing faster than any other, Williams said it should be (see chart, below). "Theres this mental image among a lot of them as the mainframe being this old dinosaur that cant do anything," Williams said of his students. "With Linux, we hope to change all of that for good."

Going to school

Set to launch early next year, Marists new curriculum will use the mainframe as a Linux training machine. In addition to running mission-critical applications on this machine, professors will use it to teach the ins and outs of Web programming. They will also incorporate mainframe maintenance lessons into their everyday lectures and will encourage students to use Web browsers to monitor performance and troubleshoot glitches. Williams said this will be in stark contrast to the traditional mainframe classes that, for years, were taught on terminals in labs; now, instead of reporting to a specific classroom and computer, students can log on from anywhere on campus and practice when they like.

While Marist faculty members thought up most of the mainframe curriculum on their own, Williams said that many of the ideas came from IBM, which has a strategy to grow similar educational programs at other universities to make mainframes a more significant part of the learning process. As part of this effort, IBM, in Armonk, N.Y., offers participating schools these machines at a discount, often 40 percent off the average $500,000 sticker price. Rich Fuqua, IBMs director of e-business marketing, describes the strategy as an attempt to answer the call among corporations for technologists who can integrate mature technologies with the Internet.

"All of the legacy applications these companies have run for years are now turning into e-business applications," Fuqua said. "As a result, these companies need people who know both COBOL and Java or at least people who know how to take the old stuff and make it new again."

As Fuqua explained, more than 10 schools have signed up so far. At North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, for instance, Associate Dean for Information Technology Thomas Miller boasts of new classes that will replace the command-line interface with that of a Web browser. At Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Computer Science Department Chairman Rodney Angotti said hes gearing up to incorporate real-world S/390 programming experience into existing classes that introduce students to Unix, Linux and Perl.

Because NIU is in such a remote portion of the state, IBM technologists are working with the school to develop a distance education program by which students at smaller institutions in surrounding communities can use the Internet to learn mainframe skills remotely. Preliminary tests show the mainframe can support more than 300 individual system partitions at once, and Angotti estimated that the machines true capacity is probably three or four times that number.

"The beauty of running Linux on a system like this is that it opens up mainframe programming to all those students who arent lucky enough to have it at their own schools," Angotti said. "If they dont learn this skill [in college], where else are they going to learn it?"