Brian Bloom is a staff writer at ComputerWorld Canada. You can find him on Google+. He covers enterprise hardware and software, information architecture and security topics.
A small Canadian company is helping cash-strapped schools, hospitals and public institutions keep their big iron humming.
Owning and operating a mainframe has never been cheap. Forget the initial cost of buying one: you’ll be paying big bucks in upgrades, licensing fees and of course, having your IT staff program and operate the machines. And with the old guard of mainframe pros retiring, and the difficulty in getting a new generation interested in the mainframe world, it’s only getting harder to find the right people.
[Watch video below for a discussion on IBM System Z mainframe education at Toronto's Ryerson University]
“Automan is built in segments,” he says. “With mainstream [companies] like Computer Associates, you have to buy the entire product and pay for everything. So, what we did with Automan is we made pieces of it optional so the user only pays for the pieces they want.
“If they decide they want more functionality, then we give them a key and it unlocks more functionality and then they pay a little bit more. But the pricing of Automan is an entire scale of difference … a company with a 500 MIPS [million instructions per second] machine can have Automan for $15,000, or go to Computer Associates and pay $350,000 for the same functionality.”
Then there are licensing fees. Often mainframe licensing fees are charged based on the total capacity of the machine, says Frank Trovato, a research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc
. “Let’s say your mainframe has 10,000 MIPS capacity,” he says. "You’re charged for that whole 10,000 MIPs.”
Customers, understandably, are sometimes not pleased with this arrangement if they aren’t using the full capacity of their machines. So, some vendors will charge your company only according to the capacity you use, what they refer to as “sub-capacity pricing.”
“If you’re only actually using 1,000 of those MIPs, sub-capacity pricing basically means you only pay licensing fees for the 1,000, not the 10,000,” Trovato says.
Still, Automan is an even more economical choice, he adds. “He [Spanchak] basically charges a flat fee. And that’s why his product can be significantly less expensive than other products.”
John Skrobek, a system programmer for the Ottawa Hospital’s
IBM z10 mainframe, says Automan replaced the old version of IBM Netview
that the hospital had used for 26 years. The hospital has now been running Automan for several months, following a trial period.
Skrobek says he has taken a liking to the software, especially since he was able to customize it to resemble something eminently familiar to him. “I did the initial setup of this product and I made it look like our old legacy Netview from IBM. It was quite easy just to set up the automation.”
Spanchak says the Ottawa Hospital was “delighted” with the price they paid for the software. “In fact, Automan is priced so they can pay it out of a different operational budget. They don’t have to pay for it out of a major acquisition budget the way they have to do for other software.”
Automan is written in a programming language Exspans Systems developed called GAL
(Generalized Automation Language) for IBM zOS and OS/390
platforms. Automan can thus be run on IBM mainframe models dating back to the early 1990s.
“It’s an extremely high-level language,” explains Spanchak. “You could think of it as Java — no, even higher-level than Java. It uses IF-THEN-ELSE constructs like a high-level language program in which you query statuses of programs, subsystems and even other machines within your complex.”
Skrobek says GAL can be used for both simple and complex automation, depending on what you want it to do. When he first set up Automan, “I used very little of the GAL,” he says. A colleague, by contrast, is using it more extensively to write automation scripts.
“You could go either way,” says Skrobek. “The product is efficient whether you use very little GAL or a lot.”
Automation of mainframe processes is, at its core, a way of simplifying things, as well as of reducing human error. But many large enterprises are unwilling to use automation software like Automan that uses a command-line, non-GUI interface, even one powered by a high-level language.
The pricier automation software out there can be as easy as drag-and-drop, explains Forrester Research Inc
. analyst Jean-Pierre Garbani. Command-line software, he says, “makes life more complicated” for employees who would have to be trained to use the language.
Automan simply wouldn’t work in a large enterprise with 15,000 servers running multiple different platforms, he adds.
“Most of workload automation is universal; that is, they don’t care whether you’re using a mainframe, a UNIX system, a Windows system … or an AS/400
. Now, they do use the same interface for any machine and it simply generates the right script for the right machine.”
Garbani also says the computing requirements of a hospital can’t be compared to those of a bank or an insurance company. “We’re talking about differences in magnitude. I would suspect that a hospital would have to consolidate maybe 200 patient files a day. A bank will have to consolidate three million accounts, or four million.”
Given his target market, which is dominated by non-profit organizations, Spanchak says he doesn’t expect many big banks to be interested in his products anyway. “The banks can quite happily afford Netview and things like that. They’re a completely different kettle of fish.”
Nevertheless, he says that Automan is powerful enough to be used on a large scale, assuming a mainframe-only environment.
“Automan is not a transaction-based system. It’s not dependent upon the number of transactions. It really doesn’t matter how much other work they do. All it’s doing is monitoring and running the operations. So, the actual number of transactions or inquiries is actually completely irrelevant.”
“It’s got every bit of the power of all the other automation products.”
Automan users tend to agree. As John Skrobek at the Ottawa Hospital puts it, “we’re a small shop, but I think it’s robust enough to work in a large operation because of the programming language it comes with. I think for either environment, whether you’re small or large, it could do quite a lot.”
Don Williams, a mainframe specialist at UNC Health Care
, a state-operated company in North Carolina that owns a number of hospitals and clinics, has used Automan for five years now. He considers it best suited for basic, low-budget mainframe automation. But he can also see it being used for greater purposes if some technical expertise is available.
“If you’re wanting to do highly complex things it can be a little hard to use…but in all honesty, that tends to be true of any automation package. I haven’t found any of them that I would say is truly user-friendly.”
In fact, Spanchak has found a place where Automan’s potential power can be demonstrated. He has successfully marketed the product to large financial institutions in Europe, where approaches to computing can differ quite markedly from those in North America.
“Mainframes are very, very popular in Germany,” Spanchak says, “and they have a tendency towards old-fashioned, solid engineering thinking. So, they’ll have a couple of mainframes that are hooked together through a Sysplex, and they’ll also have a backup site at a service provider.”
The price he charges these enterprises is comparable to what he asks from non-profits, he says. But such organizations are unwilling to speak publicly about buying a low-cost mainframe product for fear it would be interpreted as a sign of their having financial difficulties, rather than simply a case of being frugal.