To maximise potential, mainframers must reach out and engage

The team here at Freeform Dynamics has always had immense respect for the mainframe community, without whom big chunks of most developed economies would grind to a halt. That said, we sometimes wish the IT pros and developers that work with the IBM System Z platform would be a bit more assertive.

In a noisy world in which evangelists constantly shout about how their favourite technology is the best, mainframe people often need to be poked quite hard before they even start to make their case.  Call the mainframe a legacy platform and you might elicit a defensive response, but that’s generally about it.

This is why my colleague Tony Lock felt compelled to come out swinging on behalf of the quiet masses earlier this year. Following the announcement of the latest round of zSystems enhancements, some commentators were asking whether this meant the mainframe was catching up with the cloud. Tony quite rightly responded by turning the question on its head in a post entitled Has the cloud caught up with the mainframe? Suffice it to say that the answer was “No” in so many critical areas.

Against this background, I was glad that I chose to gatecrash a briefing that Tony had arranged with Macro 4, a subsidiary of UNICOM Global with decades of experience working with customers across the all-too-common mainframe vs ‘distributed systems’ divide. The objective of the session was to review the results of a short survey of mainframe customers conducted by Macro 4 at the GSE 2022 MAD Conference.

How modern, adaptable and diverse are you?

‘MAD’ stands for ‘Modern, Adaptable, Diverse’, which is one way of summing up the nature of today’s mainframe environment. The name of the conference also tells us something about the attendees that completed the survey – almost certainly a self-selecting sample with a positive bias towards the IBM zSystems platform. Not surprising then, that 83% said they were continuing to invest in the platform through various modernisation initiatives.

Within this, 46% talked about integration with the public cloud and 40% cited investments in modern developer tools and methods, all of which sounds promising at first glance. A trick we use as someone that does a lot of research ourselves, however, is to flip numbers like these around.

When we do this, the results tell us that 54% are NOT considering the mainframe as an integral part of their hybrid cloud strategy and 60% have no current focus on modern software delivery. And given the sample bias, even this undoubtedly represents an optimistic view of the situation.

When we asked Neil Evans, Macro 4’s CTO, about what stands in the way of the mainframe taking its rightful place in customers’ overall strategy and plans, he told us that it was often hard to get C-level buy-in. While execs accept the mainframe as critical to the ongoing running of the business, they are too often seduced by what they perceive to be new and disruptive. Michelle Harris, Mainframe R&D Manager, added that lack of awareness is also a problem.

Learn the limitations and constraints of your rivals

Drilling down on that point, we agreed there were two aspects to this awareness challenge. Too often, mainframe teams are simply unfamiliar with a lot of what’s been introduced into the System Z environment over the last decade or so and the associated business value.

Equally important, they also often lack an appreciation of how much those ‘new and disruptive’ alternative platforms have their own limitations and constraints. As a result they find it hard to make the case and to compete with all of the evangelists out there selling alternatives.

With this in mind, the thing that struck me the most about our conversation with the Macro 4 guys was the confidence and openness with which they spoke.  Evans and Harris, for example, were both extremely comfortable talking about the latest public cloud platforms, traditional and emerging x86 stacks, along with microservices architectures based on containers and Kubernetes. With this balanced and inclusive view, they articulated the value of all options and where it made sense to do what and why. And in doing this, they made a more compelling case for the mainframe than many of the System Z evangelists that have pitched to us over the years.

A bit of curiosity and confidence can go a long way

The conclusion Tony and I came to following the call was that a mindset shift could help a lot of mainframe teams maximise potential at both a platform and personal level. While we all get weary of evangelist attitudes such as “Public cloud is the answer, now what’s the question?”, the truth is that the mainframe really does represent one of the most powerful and versatile options available, even if you are into the latest technologies and ideas.

So if you work in the mainframe arena, make time to act on your natural curiosity to build your knowledge and confidence. With greater awareness of both System Z developments and the situations in which other platforms and delivery options often fall short, you’ll be able to make your case and fight your corner a lot more effectively.

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