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Q&A: Mainframe costs, skills are two biggest challenges

CA mainframe chief Chris O'Malley will give a keynote speech at the Share user group show in Denver this month, and talked about the hurdles mainframers face today.

Chris O'Malley, executive VP and general manager for the mainframe business unit at CA, will give a keynote at the Share user group conference in Denver this month. The talk is called "State of the Mainframe -- Empowering the Next Generation to Support the Mainframe's Leading Role in the Enterprise Architecture." We asked O'Malley a few questions recently about the major concerns of mainframe users -- staffing and costs.

What have you found are the two or three biggest challenges facing mainframe users today?

Chris O'Malley: The one that is continuously coming up is the skills issue. It's this conundrum that they've reduced the number of people they have, and they haven't done any renewal effort of any scale, and it's getting to the point of being over the cliff. It scares them because of the specialization of skills for the platform. We asked a bunch of customers how long it takes to train someone to be proficient on the mainframe. All said at least three years, and one customer said seven years.

Isn't three to seven years too long?

O'Malley:Yes. Unfortunately the most senior people are the Yodas of the environment. They have the runbooks in their head and understand the implications of change in the environment. Those people of that kind of skill are difficult to replicate. A lot of customers will go from someone with 40 years of experience to 25 or 30 year olds who are unlikely to have any real-life mainframe skills. Guys who are 65 now won't be here for three years or seven years to train them. So we have to give them the technology on the mainframe that is consistent with what they've grown up with.

What is another major challenge?

O'Malley: Cost. Customers are looking at very aggressive ways to save money. IT has tended to run lean, so when they're asked to cut budgets 10-20% more, it's difficult.

IT users often tell me it's easier to pay for operational expenditures over capital expenditures. Is that true for mainframers, and if so, what effect does it have?

O'Malley: The capital markets are so tight because of the recession, but it's hard both ways. There are no easy pickings. But I think this recession is helping the case for the mainframe. This lean IT being hypersensitive to costs causes companies to focus on business services, and I think that makes the mainframe look really good. The IBM z10, it went out of the ballpark when it first came out, in the midst of one of the worst economic recessions we've had in our lifetimes.

But IBM just announced quarterly revenue, and the mainframe tanked 39%. What happened?

O'Malley: [IBM is] doing well in relation to most hardware providers, but it's an erratic business. Twenty percent of their customers do 80% of the business, so one or two deals happening or not happening in a quarter can have a big effect. They have had quite a run, and almost all of that was during a recession. They've had a history of up and down, up and down, and I think this is just a blip.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer. Also, check out our blogs: Data Center Facilities Pro, Mainframe Propeller Head, and Server Farming.

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Salaries are not that great in Mainframe. Even though they are top performers they do not get paid as much as say ERP specialists. Also, the development tools in Mainframes can be upgraded to make it more productive and fast paced development.