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Mainframe technology in 2011 and beyond: A Q&A

Two industry experts discuss technologies and advancements that affect mainframe systems today, along with the importance of symposiums in showcasing this mainframe technology.

The year 2011 may prove to be a critical one in IT. The economic challenges of the past few years appear to be easing. And as budget money becomes available, IT decision makers are again looking forward to the conferences and symposiums that showcase the latest advancements in data center efficiency and control. For example, the industry is preparing for the Share conference slated for Feb. 27 through March 4 in Anaheim, Calif. Let's think about some of the advancements and mainframe technology that affect these systems.

I spoke with Janet Sun, president of Share, and Harry Williams, director of technology at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

You can also listen to a podcast of this Q&A:

With the next Share conference almost here, what are the most important mainframe technologies that you see emerging or evolving in 2011?

Janet: The most important emerging mainframe technology is IBM’s z196 and zBX blade extension. We had one of the first publicly displayed and working z196s at our Boston Share conference last year and now we look forward to user experience sessions at our upcoming meeting [in Anaheim]. We’re anticipating significant throughput and performance improvement for z/OS and its subsystems, as well as z/VM and Linux on System z.

Harry: Those are some of the key components. We’re seeing an increase in multi-tier applications -- z196 is an excellent platform for that. You’re not going to have a better place than Share to get the most out of it. There are sessions on everything from using the iPad for interfacing with it to the bits and bytes of z196.

How can existing mainframe users leverage these new or evolving technologies? What can be upgraded, and what will need to wait for another technology refresh cycle?

Janet: Many of the existing mainframes can be upgraded to z196. Our member companies need to look at their respective business cases and consider if it’s the right time to upgrade, but in most cases they can upgrade their existing hardware, and that’s fabulous.

Harry: It is. Every technology refresh has its own set of advantages, and there are some already there and obviously more coming in the future.

How do you see processor and memory technologies advancing on the mainframe this year?

Janet: We expect it’ll take some time to consume these recent changes. Our members will need to determine how to best utilize the zBX and which applications can best take advantage of the close proximity of the blade in the zBX to the z196. That said, it’ll be interesting to see the specialty blades IBM has rolled out, like Smart Analytics Optimizer and WebSphere DataPower.

Harry: With the 196, it was so different from history and it’s going to take people time to figure out how to use them and best integrate them into their existing infrastructure. I go to Share as I have to integrate these into my applications, and those are the type of people that are doing that already.

What is happening with mainframe support for Unix and Linux?

Janet: Interest in Linux on the mainframe continues to grow, and we’ve had an active program covering that for many years at Share. We have both Red Hat and Novell [Oracle] -- participants in our Share Technology Exchange. And this year, Oracle has become a premier partner with Share. So we see this growing and flourishing.

Harry: If you look at the history of Linux on the mainframe, Share offers the best of that. They have been involved in developing that application, exploiting it. That’s where it was first publicly announced by IBM. If you look at who’s there and how they best exploit it, that’s why we go there. IBM has also made statements of directions in terms of future z/VM support -- more Linux, more support and dealing with things like live guest migration -- and Share is where those things are discussed.

What do you see happening with mainframe power efficiency? Are there any "green" initiatives for mainframes?

Janet: Absolutely. The IBM mainframe is very green and getting greener all the time. To handle comparable workloads, the System z consumes significantly less power, takes up less floor space and has more simplified administration and infrastructure over a number of other platforms.

Harry: The mainframe is the ultimate green machine. We had projects here last year where we repurposed servers onto a z10 and saved 10% of our electrical budget based on that one set of functions of moving those things. We also increased our performance and reliability. Those are the things that I’ve got staff going to Share to talk about. I don’t see anything better than the mainframe in terms of a green initiative.

How are all of these changes affecting mainframe reliability, support and maintenance?

Janet: The mainframe has always been the most reliable and maintainable platform. One interesting comparison notes that while the system capability of the IBM mainframe continues to grow, the labor to manage that environment remains constant. In other words, the same team you have today can continue to manage a growing environment.

Harry: The mainframe is the benchmark that all other systems measure themselves against. The reliability, availability and support for it continues to improve. I mentioned before that the live guest migration IBM put in its statement of direction -- that’s for the ability to increase the availability. We continue to see that all the time.

What's happening with mainframe application development -- especially with virtualization?

Application developers must have some understanding of virtualization. It’s different than being able to have dedicated hardware that you can just buy a bigger box for. You have to understand that you need to free up resources, understand the memory utilization and work with other guests. The nice thing about the mainframe is that it has the benchmarks built in to help developers to improve and monitor the performance. And that’s why we’re seeing more of our developers moving to the mainframe for development.

How are all of these changes affecting mainframe migration strategies?

Janet: With virtualization and cloud computing, our Share member companies need to evaluate being able to move workloads back onto the mainframe. With enhanced performance, reliability, scalability and favorable licensing terms, the mainframe seems to provide the best total cost of ownership characteristics and really looks like the best place to run mission-critical and mixed workloads.

What other important technologies or initiatives will be covered at the upcoming Share conference?

Janet: We have so much good material. We’ll have a keynote on analytics and another on social media. We’ve got an architecture summit and an executive forum. We also just completed a survey of our Share members to understand what the industry expects of university programs to better guide them in providing training for upcoming IT professionals. Our intention is to make this information available, and hopefully that will help the universities to generate the programs in their curriculum to get the skilled professionals required by our member businesses.

Harry: As the industry has changed over the last several years, the ability of people to deal with a wide range of technologies has become important for their personal job growth and for their industry. One thing I like about Share is that it gives me that breadth -- the ability to understand some of the Linux and z/OS technologies, some of the storage and networking capabilities. I haven’t seen it anywhere else but at Share.

The spring 2011 Share conference runs from Feb. 27 through March 4 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif. You can learn more about the Share conference at www.share.org.

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