Mainframe, Z Next Generation
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
When people talk about the competition between computing platforms, those discussions almost invariably focus on the feeds and speeds of the server architectures and their operating systems and their middleware. But that is not the only kind of competing that goes on inside the data center, of course. There is the competition for budget dollars, driven by the managers and programmers who advocate for particular platforms, and then, eventually, the competition for people themselves to build and support the solutions that will appear on those platforms.
While legacy platform providers such as IBM with the mainframe and its younger sibling, the OS/400-based iSeries line, as well as Hewlett-Packard with its acquired VMS and NonStop platforms (but alas, not its MPE minicomputer), have done a decent job modernizing their platforms with new hardware technologies (Power and Itanium chips, respectively) and platform capabilities (mixing and matching operating systems, virtual or logical partitions, and so forth), upgrading people and their skills is a lot more difficult. And, it turns out, it is quite possibly a more pressing problem.
According to surveys of mainframe customers performed by IBM, there are approximately 90,000 mainframe professionals in the world (programmers, administrators, and such). Many of these mainframers have been working since the System/360 was delivered in the mid-1960s, some current mainframers even predate these machines; a very big portion of the base hails from the days of the System/370. At the SHARE large systems user group meeting in Boston today, Randy Daniel, director of z/OS marketing at IBM, took a straw poll of several hundred attendees at the opening MVS session, and the majority of attendees at the session went back at least two decades in attending SHARE meetings, and many of them are getting ready to retire.
As part of the mainframe charter that was announced a few years ago, IBM committed to making the mainframe platform more innovative, less costly, and building out the community of experts in the mainframe field. To fulfill that latter promise, IBM has committed to maintain the level of mainframe experts in the field, which means adding 20,000 or so people who are trained in mainframe technologies between now and 2010. (Somewhat surprisingly, and an indication that China is becoming the manufacturing, distribution, and perhaps the financing center of gravity, Daniel said at the SHARE session that Big Blue expects to add 10,000 trained mainframers in China alone.) These people are being trained through what IBM calls the Academic Initiative, which is a collaboration between itself, 150 colleges and universities (up 650 percent in 2004 and expected to double to 300 by the end of 2005), and businesses worldwide--and this week, a high school--that are taking mainframe curriculums and instructional materials developed by IBM and teaching them to college students.
While the Linux community, and the Unix community before it, gets all the press about being communities and for sharing ideas as well as code, Daniel said in the opening MVS session at SHARE that it was organizations like this user group, which was founded in 1955, that were the real originators of the idea of an IT community. SHARE was founded by the relative handful of companies that had computers five decades ago, and it was very much a part of an early open source software movement on these platforms as well as a means for the nascent computer community (which evolved into the mainframe community) to provide feedback to IBM and, thereafter, other suppliers of big iron and software that ran on them.
It may be true that the pendulum of decentralized servers that defined the computing revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s is swinging back toward the centralized systems, getting young people who know what a mainframe is, much less are interested in cultivating a career on the mainframe, is not particularly easy and it carries some risks. While there could very well be a shortage of mainframe experts in the coming years, there might be enough techies in emerging economies in India, China, Eastern Europe, and several other areas of the world to make up the difference. The key word is might.
But getting techies is about more than raw numbers of people, and that is what the zNextGen community initiative that was jointly announced by IBM and SHARE is all about. While organizations like SHARE offer training and a sense of community, the average age of SHARE attendees is pretty high, and the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who are new to the mainframe market have different needs--both technical and social. To that end, the newbie mainframers had their first meeting at SHARE this week, and they launched a Web blog at http://mainframe.typepad.com.
According to Mike Bliss, worldwide director of System z9 technical support and marketing, IBM started an internal community for students and new hires at Big Blue and key partners, and this has blossomed into a much broader effort to build a worldwide community of young mainframers. "We are obviously interested in skills for people of all ages," he explains. "But it is equally important to build the pipeline for skills in the future." To that end, people who want to join the zNextGen can join no matter what their biological age is--what matters is that they are new to the zSeries.
Of those 90,000 mainframers that IBM thinks are out there in the world, "a relatively low" portion of the population is in their 20s and 30s, but according to Bliss, this portion of the mainframe employee pool is growing. And it had better. IBM is estimating that by 2010, about 25 percent of those 90,000 people who work on the mainframe--that's 22,250 people--are going to retire. IBM needs to replace these experts, many of whom have unique skills that are not easily duplicated. This is why IBM is working on making z/OS and z/VM easier to manage--by adding automation features and by moving system administration functions to a graphical user interface that is more familiar to computer users (and hence tomorrow's computer experts) today.
The potential future shortage in mainframe skills has its root causes, of course. Bliss says that in the 1990s, as Windows, Unix, and then Linux platforms gained prestige during the dot-com boom, there was a lull in hiring for the mainframe platform. IBM doesn't normally talk about numbers, but it is doing so in the case of the 20,000 trained mainframe professionals as a means of demonstrating its commitment to the zSeries platform. "I think that 20,000 number is conservative," says Bliss. "But it is a long road to get to that place, and we put a stake in the ground publicly."
Also helping IBM make those numbers will be the 20,000-strong membership of SHARE itself. The 2,000-plus companies worldwide that are part of SHARE are among the most active users of mainframes in the world, and they have a vested interest in finding, training, and retaining mainframe experts.
Other Mainframe Announcements
In addition to the zNextGen announcement with SHARE, IBM's Tivoli systems management software unit also showed a preview of the forthcoming versions of the software it has cooked up based on its acquisition of Candle, which Big Blue bought in February 2005. According to Tom Furukawa, worldwide Tivoli zSeries marketing manager, the new products will be available in the fourth quarter of 2005. IBM has taken the Omegamon products it acquired from Candle, which IBM bought largely to build out its own mainframe management products (ironic, isn't it?) and consolidated them to a simpler product line based on support for the z/OS, CICS, IMS, DB2, network, and storage layers of a mainframe system. These Omegamon products will all be at the 3.10 release level and will carry the Tivoli Omegamon brand.
Perhaps more significantly, Furukawa says IBM has taken the z/OS Health Checker from the Omegamon suite, the base capabilities of Tivoli Monitoring Services, and Configuration Status features of z/OS to create what is tentatively being called the z/OS Management Console. This will be a graphical tool that makes z/OS system administration more like what newbie mainframers have learned from their experiences with Windows and possibly Linux or Mac OS. This new console will be free in z/OS 1.7, which is slated for September.
IBM is also previewing the Tivoli Enterprise Portal, which is a portal that will allow all of the Tivoli tools to snap into it and present them all (which have different heritages and native interfaces) in a single portal that has a consistent look and feel. This portal is based on the Omegamon interface, which is unique in that it can present an application or services view of what is going on inside a mainframe and distributed system, not just look at the performance and management characteristics of the pieces that go into servers, storage, networks, and software layers. IBM also announced that the asset management software it acquired from Isogon a month ago would be re-branded as Tivoli License Manager for z/OS, complementing a license manager IBM had already created for distributed systems, and as Tivloi License Manager for Contracts, which doesn't keep track of licenses, but the contractual and financial terms of those licenses and allows companies to see when they violate their licenses. This allows them to figure out how usage matches the contract, and consolidate if they are under utilizing licenses or cut a check to a software vendor if they are over using a license. The latter, of course, never happens. . . That would be wrong.