Is the time right for a mainframe renaissance?

Every few years, industry pundits predict the death of the mainframe. But these big iron systems, represent the IT lifeblood of major enterprises. Far from being killed off, the mainframe is being re-incarnated as a modern system for internet applications, service oriented architectures (SOAs) and enterprise resource planning.

Every few years, industry pundits predict the death of the mainframe. But these big iron systems, represent the IT lifeblood of major enterprises. Far from being killed off, the mainframe is being re-incarnated as a modern system for internet applications, service oriented architectures (SOAs) and enterprise resource planning.

Many people perceive the mainframe as an expensive necessity, required for business-critical systems. Over time, many of these systems have been migrated to PC and Unix servers configured in mutli-tiered distributed architectures, where servers are allocated specific functions to support the business applications and provide high availability. There are, however, hidden costs associated with distributed computing environments, which is driving businesses to re-assess the mainframe as a platform.

According to IBM, an IBM System z10 EC mainframe has the equivalent capacity of nearly 1,500 x86 servers with an 85% smaller footprint and up to 85% lower energy costs. While the starting price of this machine is around the $1 million mark, WinterGreen Research has estimated that seven times more IT administrators are required to run a real time, 24 by 7, high-availability distributed computing environment compared to running the same application on a mainframe system. This is what makes the mainframe attractive over PC and Unix servers.

A recent IDC study has reported that mainframe users plan a wave of investments in the IBM System z mainframe platform over the next two to five years, given the system's high availability, reliability, and security for mission-critical applications. "Customers continue to collect dividends on their System z investments, which makes future investments much more palatable, even in difficult economic times," says Tim Grieser, program vice-president, Enterprise System Management Software at IDC.

But the platform has not attracted the new generation of IT workers that prefer hot technologies like Java and web 2.0 over the boring mainframe, which had negatively impacted CIO's ability to reskill their aging mainframe workforce.

Global logistics firm, DHL is one such example. Like many global businesses, DHL runs a mainframe system to support a core business process. It is supported by nine administrators and eight operators, some of whom have over 30 years of experience in mainframe programming and administration.

DHL recently moved this mainframe application, which supports air freight, from Scottsdale in the US to Prague. The application runs 60 million database transactions per day and supports 26,000 users globally. "As part of the migration, we transferred some skills from the US to supplement our local resources and help to develop our skills," says Tomas Klima, DHL IT Services. This has helped to maintain a level of continuity, as he recruits more people to take on mainframe administrator roles. One of the ways of minimising the running costs of the mainframe system and overcoming the shortage of mainframe skills is to develop and train existing IT people. Klima says, "Most young people grow up with Windows and Open Systems such as Linux. Cross-training on the mainframe takes time and effort."

In the last five years IBM has supported mainframe training at 600 universities around the world. The IBM Academic Initiative was established to provide educational resources to introduce undergraduates to the mainframe, and help students develop knowledge and practical skills that enable them to find jobs supporting and running mainframe systems. To date, more than 50,000 students have participated.

Surrey University has been running an MSc module for the last three years on manframe skills, as part of IBM's Academic Initiative. Surrey was the first UK university to offer a mainframe module and to date, 20 students have competed the training, says Lee Gillam, a lecturer at the department of computing. IBM provides Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in mainframe computing for the course, who run weekly, four-hour workshop sessions, face-to-face at the University. These typically involve three hours of presentations and an hour of practical investigation with a live mainframe system, IBM's European University hub mainframe "Zeus".

CA is also addressing the skills gap, by developing admin tools to simplify mainframe administration.

With graduates now learning mainframe skills, and a wealth of tools to help businesses deploy new applications on the mainframe, now could be the right time to re-evaluate big iron.

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