Who said mainframe was dead?

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Despite “the death of mainframe” being predicted for some time, it is continues to be the bedrock of the world’s economy 52 years after its creation. Mainframe still accounts for 90% of Fortune 500’s core systems, and the functionality of thousands of banks, insurers, manufacturers is built on hundreds of thousands of lines of COBOL code.   

It can be easy to think that with the adoption of cloud computing on the rise, mainframe is taking a back seat for many enterprises. But some applications function best on mainframe platforms and without it, major business disruption of our everyday lives, such as using the cash point, could occur. Not only this, but companies are finding mainframe a useful platform to provide cloud applications with the information they need - turning them into giant data servers.     

IBM’s decision to build its latest machine learning innovations for mainframe goes to show that mainframe will not simply vanish, in spite of all the column inches dedicated to predicting just that. With an ever-increasing transaction volume across the globe set for the coming year, the reality is that mainframe is still vital. 

Mind the gap 

As it stands, the mainframe workforce is predominantly made up of the Baby Boomer generation. Herein lies the problem, as this cohort approaches retirement age they will leave behind a gaping hole in mainframe knowledge. Millennial IT professionals may have been born into a tech-savvy world in which smartphones and tablets are always at the tips of their fingers, but mainframe remains largely unknown to the majority of this new generation of IT. And so a skills crisis is on the horizon as the tech-native millennials lack the tailored set of skills and expertise specific to mainframe, which their predecessors have acquired and perfected over many years.   

With this mass exodus of senior mainframe experts looming, organisations are faced with a critical question: Does mainframe really matter when the cloud is taking everything under its wing? If IT believes it does, where will the replacement knowledge come from?   

Apart from critical impact on the effective running of some applications, the impact of retiring mainframers could include increased application risk, lower productivity and project overruns, just some of the problems resulting from the looming talent drain. Businesses need to take action now to ensure their continued operation. 

Mainframers are doing it for themselves   

The demand for comprehensive coding skills doesn’t look likely to subside in the near future, so it falls to universities and businesses to react and help with supply. However, for the current batch of computer science graduates leaving university mainframe is absent from their stable of skills. Universities have largely decided to drop this part of the course from the curriculum and its supporting code, such as COBOL, meaning companies can no longer rely on institutions to provide their workers with adequate knowledge and skills in this area.   

If we cannot turn to education for help, who will provide the younger troops with their much-needed mainframe training? The natural answer to this would be to train up the millennials internally to be successful masters of the mainframe.   

IBM is one organisation that has a vested interest in solving this problem, given that mainframe sales and services are still a healthy business for the company. One scheme trying to address the problem is the Academic Initiative program designed to provide mainframe education for students and millennials, with its “master the mainframe” challenge – an open hackathon.   

The most forward looking IT leaders should be looking at developing their own mainframe on-boarding programme to train both interns and seasoned employees. This programme should focus on mainframe best practices for the particular organisation, as well as properly rotate learning opportunities for mainframe responsibilities.  

A good phase 1 of such a plan would be tailored to interns and the the less experienced and would focus on basic mainframe constructs such as TSO, ISPF, z/OS and JCL over a period of several months, featuring things like individual hands-on training. Companies wishing to implement this kind of training would benefit from creating their own mainframe “lab”. Similar to how flight simulators train pilots, there are benefits to having dedicated, hands-on training sessions for mainframe.  

Phase 2 could involve more technically advanced training, including TSMF, which streamlines the process of downloading, registering and installing vendor software, and multiple support processes covering disaster recovery oversight, storage management, software and authcode support.  

This carries the dual benefit of providing interns and junior-level roles with practical mainframe experience, whilst allowing seasoned trainees to focus on the topics they have not covered before. It’s important to ensure that any on-boarding programme is a living process that is updated periodically to maintain pace with an evolving industry. The programme should evolve based on feedback from past participants into a tool that secures the mainframe’s future for the organisation. 

Three is a magic number 

Currently, the two options available to enterprises – recruiting and attempting to retain skills that are soon extinct or taking the risky, time-consuming and costly option of transitioning from mainframe to cloud before the business is ready. Neither are really the magic answers that everybody is hoping for.   

A third option in addition to recruiting mainframe talent, which will be difficult due to the competition from other ‘sexier’ platforms, and complete migration to the cloud, which can be costly and impractical, is Remote Infrastructure Management. This is because it adds a secure managed service layer to the existing mainframe environment, allowing third party experts to manage the mainframe remotely. In turn, this lets employees use their time wisely to focus on their core business and delivering a better service to their customers.   

It is clear that the end certainly isn’t here yet for ‘big iron’. Astute IT leaders will be planning for a future away from mainframe whilst ensuring the skills are in place to operate today in the full knowledge that that future is some distance away. With the right strategy in place, companies can continue to extract value from the mainframe for years to come, but those who are poorly prepared risk being unable to operate the technology which forms the bedrock of their most fundamental IT systems.    

Ken Harper, Product Leader for Mainframe Services and Products at Ensono 

Image Credit: Skeeze / Pixabay