Mainframes: life begins at 45

Virtualisation? Thin clients? Secure data? Hard and software scalability? Big deal: mainframes have been doing it for 45 years, explains E&T.

When I contemplate mainframe futures, I'm always reminded of the man who, in 1991, famously announced that the last mainframe in the world would be unplugged in 1996. Thirteen years on from that prediction, and 45 years on from the advent of the IBM System/360 - generally agreed to be the first true mainframe platform - and the platform's prospects are looking bright on range of technological fronts.

Mainframe futures can be divided to into five areas: hardware; software; training; 'role'; and 'attitude'. Underlying this whole view, of course, is the assumption that mainframes will be with us for a number of years yet.

In respect to mainframe hardware, there is a continual improvement in the speed or size of what's available, while at the same time a reduction in the physical footprint and the greenhouse effect. The introduction of the specialty engines - IFL for Linux, zAAP for Java (WebSphere), and zIIP for DB2 - has encouraged take up of these specialty engines. We've also heard about the z11 processor, which is anticipated to be with us in September 2011; and in a back-to-the-future sort of way, at least some of the next generation of machines promise to be water-cooled.

Software advances

There have been a huge number of enhancements in the area of mainframe software. CA, as part of its Web 2.0 strategy, enhanced most of its mainframe software line during 2009, and other players in this space are continuing to upgrade theirs. NEON Enterprise Software launched its zPrime software: zPrime works by automatically identifying IMS, DB2, CICS, TSO/ISPF, and batch workloads that can be processed on specialty processors, reducing processing costs and improving throughput for the primary CPU, the company claims. DataDirect has version 7.2.1 of its Shadow suite. This takes a similar 'diversionary' approach to handling Web integration services, SOA support, and data integration processing.

Making the mainframe easier to use has been something of a mantra during 2009, particularly in the light of an ageing population of IT practitioners with mainframe skills; many vendors, including IBM, are including 'autonomics' in their software. Autonomics means that the software will try to identify potential problems, and then fix them.

Another 'usability' strategy used by vendors is to make using the mainframe more like using a Microsoft Windows environment, which then makes it more easily accessible by less-experienced programmers. Attracting young programmers is becoming a priority for organisations using mainframes as well as the mainframe software vendors. Many people will now be familiar with the Eclipse 'universal toolkit' - and remember that it is estimated that more than 60 per cent of enterprise data is held on a mainframe of some kind, 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 young IT professionals. IBM has its Academic Initiative, which was introduced in 2004. This runs at universities in the US, UK, and Europe. Similarly, following initiatives announced earlier this year, 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 a supply of qualified COBOL and Assembler programmers, thus remedying another concern about the future livelihood of the mainframe.

Changing roles

So what, in 2009, is the role of the mainframe? Any survey of current usage will confirm that the mainframe has any number of roles in most organisations. It is still satisfying roles it acquired 20 or 30 years ago, and it is also adopting new ones. For example service-oriented architecture (SOA) is 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 speculation about the role of mainframes in the emerging Cloud Computing market. More recently there has been a growth in the use of mainframes in Business Intelligence (BI) solutions - particularly with IBM's $1.2bn acquisition last July of data mining and statistical analysis software specialist SPSS. IBM says that it intends to integrate SPSS within its Information Management software portfolio.

So, after 45 years, the mainframe's profile in the IT landscape continues to change and to evolve, but one thing that hasn't changed is its vital importance to the success of businesses that make use of it. A newer trend could be its recognition as a useful tool for organisations that traditionally relied on distributed computing platforms.

Public perception

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 arguably better alternatives. There's a whole generation of IT professionals who have never worked with a mainframe, and who may think it outdated, outclassed, and unsuited for 2009's IT environment; they may even include some of the same trendy technologists who rush out and buy Citrix to emulate some of the best characteristics of a mainframe; or those who virtualise their server farms thinking it is something new.

Not that the mainframe is the right environment for every enterprise; but many mid-sized organisations could be missing out on an opportunity because of the blinkered thinking of some of their IT strategists.

Despite this the mainframe still has a great future ahead of it. Long may it continue.

Trevor Eddolls is CEO of iTech-Ed
Further information
System/360 promotional films
IBM System 360 - Solid Logic Technology being manufactured

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