IBM mainframe plan aims at next-gen developers

IBM Corp. says its US$100-million mainframe simplification project, which it started in 2006, has helped deliver more flexible platforms to its customers and reignite excitement around mainframe computing. But according to one Gartner Inc. analyst, Big Blue’s initiative doesn’t address the real crisis in mainframe market – the IT skills shortage.

The company’s five-year journey is intended to alleviate the complexity and intimidation IT managers face when operating a mainframe. Part of the $100-million investment payout led to the creation of IBM’s System z10 mainframe, which was released earlier this year, and other software and hardware tools developed out of its Rational Software division.

“Besides the tools, we’ve also hired more people to focus on the Z customers and help communicate the value that the customer can get from a multi-workload mainframe,” Scott Searle, marketing program director for enterprise modernization at IBM, said.

Evolving mainframe technologies to make the user interface friendlier for younger developers is another key to better utilizing mainframe computing, according to Searle. Looking at the mainframe’s ability to run new workloads, he said, “whether it’s Java or Linux, it’s a much more flexible platform now than it ever before.”

Searle said that Rational Developer for System Z two packaged offerings – one which interfaces with Java, while the other works with EGL – offers greater flexibility for younger mainframe users.

“If you code your applications with EGL, you can actually deploy them either as COBOL or Java,” he said. “That makes it so much more flexible for the customer.”

Searle said he’s talked to numerous companies who are excited about developing new applications on the mainframe that take advantage of their skilled programmers.

“They have COBOL programmers, but they want to look at accessing other skills and the new workload processors are perfect for that,” he said. They can now target Java and Linux developers, Searle added.

Gartner analyst Dale Vecchio said that the IBM mainframe plan is a noble effort, but one that only addresses part of the issue. He said the dependency on experienced system programmers, particularly of the baby boomer generation, should be IBM’s primary challenge.

“Even though you can make it simpler to administrate, you still need somebody knowledgeable on what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said. “You can’t just take kids out of school, give them a good interface and think they’re going to run something as complex and robust as a mainframe infrastructure.”

“If they’d have started these initiatives 10 years ago, they’d be better off,” he added.

Vecchio applauded IBM’s Academic Initiative program, which offers post-secondary institutions IBM-related curriculum and infrastructure to train students on enterprise systems, but said that even that project faces significant demographic challenges.

“Sure it’s great for students to learn about z Linux, WebSphere, and Java on a mainframe, but it doesn’t necessarily address the fundamental skills issue associated with traditional mainframe architecture and the operating environments associated with that,” he said.

Vecchio added that while the program trains students on IBM mainframe products, the initiative completely neglects widely used hardware and software from rival ISVs.

“IBM is not pushing Computer Associates or Compuware technologies because they are trying to get these guys out of the way,” he said. But the fact that there are not many mainframe shops that are completely Blue, Vecchio said, means most IBM Academic program students won’t be prepared for mixed technology environments.

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