Friendly interfaces can revitalise mainframe projects and ensure deadlines are met, says David Chalmers
Skills shortages in IT are a major headache for directors. Shortages increase labour costs and cause delays that threaten project completion.
Until recently these headaches were largely confined to projects which used newer technologies. However, skill shortages now pose a threat to legacy technologies that are more embedded in business.
A recent survey by research group Omniboss revealed that 64% of businesses still run systems on a mainframe.
Yet the continued use of legacy technologies is under threat from an increasingly acute shortage of mainframe personnel. This is due to two main factors:
- Established, qualified mainframe professionals are nearing retirement age and many projects already suffer from a lack of senior expert direction
- It is difficult to attract newcomers to train in mainframe skills.
The interfaces for mainframes are showing their age. They lack depth and usability. They are often seen as archaic and so are overlooked by many entrants to the IT talent pool.
This shortage means there are fewer mainframe experts, causing labour costs to increase and projects to be hampered by interfaces which are hard to use.
Many offshore outsourcing firms have recognised this developing skills shortage and their local educational institutions are producing thousands of newly trained mainframe personnel.
However, there is considerable sensitivity about outsourcing mainframe systems as they often include mission-critical data and applications. Many UK organisations seeking a domestic solution are forced to pay premium contractor rates.
This premium will be a bitter pill to swallow. The Omniboss study shows that 44% of IT directors believe mainframe licensing costs are too expensive. Greater staff costs will threaten the viability of mainframe-related projects and increase the cost of the IT function at a time when companies are tentatively talking of an improved climate.
One alternative is to develop the mainframe interfaces. By making the interface more attractive, legacy technologies can become more approachable.
An updated interface design will enable IT staff without mainframe expertise to manage the system effectively. Web browsers and graphical user interfaces provide an intuitive format familiar to most end-users. Features, such as drop-down lists and navigation trees, offer ease of use without sacrificing functionality, and training new mainframe personnel will take less time.
In the long term, an improved interface could mean responsibility for mainframe systems is spread across more members of the IT team. This can effectively remove the threat of a skills shortage, safeguard mission-critical data and core business applications and ease the increased cost burden of specialist mainframe personnel.
David Chalmers is product strategy director at systems software supplier Macro 4
This was first published in October 2004