Sunday, 18 October 2009

Mainframe futures

Whenever I start a piece on mainframe futures, I’m always reminded of poor old Stewart Alsop when he was editor-in-chief of InfoWorld. He was the man who famously announced in 1991 that the last mainframe in the world would be unplugged in 1996. Sorry Stewart, not even close!

I’m going to divide this look at mainframe futures into five areas – hardware, software, training, role, and attitude. And, of course, underlying this whole view is the assumptions that mainframes will be with us for a number of years yet.

Looking at hardware, we can see that there is a continual improvement in the speed or size of what’s available, while at the same time a reduction in the footprint and the greenhouse effect. We’ve had the introduction of the specialty engines – IFL for Linux, zAAP for Java (WebSphere), and zIIP for DB2 – and we’re looking at the growing take up of these specialty engines. We’ve also heard about the z11 processor, which is anticipated to be with us in September 2011. Interestingly, in a back-to-the-future sort of way, at least some of the machines will be water-cooled. Improvements are coming all the time.

In terms of software, there have been a huge number of enhancements. CA, as part of its Web 2.0 strategy, enhanced most of its mainframe software line this year. And other companies are continuing to upgrade theirs. NEON Enterprise Software launched its controversial zPrime software. DataDirect has version 7.2.1 of its Shadow suite. In terms of making the mainframe easier to use, particularly in the light of an ageing population of experts, many vendors, including IBM, are including autonomics into their software. This means that the software will try to identify potential problems and fix them. The other strategy used by vendors is to make using the mainframe more like using a Windows environment, which then makes it more easily accessible by young programmers. And attracting young programmers is important for the organizations using mainframes as well as the mainframe software vendors. Many people will now be familiar with using Eclipse. And remember that it’s estimated that over 60% of company data is held on a mainframe, and much of that is being accessed using COBOL programs. So software is continually evolving and getting better.

Both IBM and CA are taking steps to ensure that training is available at universities for youngsters. IBM has its Academic Initiative, which was introduced in 2004. This runs at universities in the USA, UK, and Europe. Similarly, CA is working with universities, starting in the Czech Republic, to provide mainframes they can use for specific training modules. These and other initiatives will ensure an on-going supply of qualified COBOL and Assembler programmers. Having young well-trained programmers ensures the future of mainframes.

So what is the role of the mainframe? Before you rush to answer that question, let me suggest that there is no simple answer. The mainframe has any number of roles in most organization. It is still satisfying roles it acquired 20 or 30 years ago, and it is also gaining new ones. For example SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture) is still growing in importance allowing the mainframe to be a Web service consumer as well as a Web service provider to Internet-based users. There is also much talk about mainframes and their role in cloud computing. We’ve also recently seen a growth in the use of mainframes in Business Intelligence solutions – particularly with IBM’s recent acquisition of SPSS. So the mainframes role is constantly evolving and changing, but it’s always vitally important to the success of businesses that make use of mainframes, and could also be a useful tool for organizations that don’t use mainframes.

The last area I want to touch on is the public’s attitude towards mainframes. It is important that IBM and everyone else who believes in the mainframe helps convince the “Windows generation” that there are other choices – some of which, like the mainframe, are better alternatives. There’s a whole generation of IT guys who’ve never worked on a mainframe and who think its old-fashioned and not fit for today’s environment – probably the same people who rush out to buy Citrix to emulate some of the best characteristics of a mainframe; or the people who virtualize their servers thinking it is something new. We all need to get out there and raise people’s awareness. I’m not saying that a mainframe is the right environment for everyone, but I’m sure many mid-sized organizations are missing out on an opportunity because of the blinkered thinking of some of their IT people. Let’s help change that.

All-in-all, the mainframe still has a great future ahead of it. So much is going on to make it so. Long may it continue.

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