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Fill in skills shortages with mainframe outsourcing

New deeply skilled mainframe staffers won't pop up overnight, so use a mix of in-house and outsourcing tactics to support another decade on big iron.

A qualified personnel shortage is putting pressure on mainframe deployments.

As mainframe usage declines, the pool of qualified IT workers who program and service big iron systems is aging and declining in size as well. Businesses are finding it harder to hire and retain staff with mainframe skills. This hinders every aspect of operation from timely software updates to effective hardware service and troubleshooting, to integrating the mainframe with outside systems and applications, along with security, storage and disaster recovery.

Four strategies mitigate mainframe support problems.

First, a business can elect to migrate workloads off of the mainframe onto other computing platforms, such as x86 Unix, Linux or Windows servers. This is a difficult goal because applications and data stores will need to be revised, converted or reverse-engineered to accommodate the new platforms. The real concern is cost; is the cost of such migration less than the cost of continuing reliance on the mainframe and qualified staffing?

A second alternative is mainframe outsourcing -- essentially divesting the in-house system and staff, and allowing another business to run those workloads for you. You must rely on their business competence and IT expertise. Outsourcing is typically considered a risky alternative because mainframes invariably host mission-critical tasks, and disruptions to the service provider are catastrophic for a business that outsources. And there is still migration work required for the outside provider to host your applications.

A third alternative is filling any mainframe skills gap with outside consultants or contract employees. Temporary employees are usually less-than-ideal alternatives to on-staff mainframe support because of the time it takes to learn your applications and systems. Any knowhow acquired along the way -- and funded by your business -- will disappear when the engagement ends. Contractors can be an effective stopgap measure for relatively straightforward tasks where learning curves are small.

The fourth strategy is developing and expanding in-house mainframe training initiatives and encouraging retention of experts. Try mentoring, computer-based training, vendor-specific training in mainframe systems and management tools, attendance at mainframe conferences and other tactics.

None of these alternatives immediately resolve mainframe knowledge shortfalls. In many cases, IT shops apply app migration, outsourcing, contracting and training in varying combinations to address urgent needs while fostering long-term skill building. For example, a company outsources some of the most easily migrated workloads while engaging a mainframe contractor to handle routine tasks. This frees the retiring in-house mainframe support staff to spend time training designated employees the skills to take over mainframe management for another 10, 20 or 50 years.

About the author:
Stephen J. Bigelow is a senior technology editor at TechTarget, covering data center and virtualization technologies. He acquired many CompTIA certifications in his more than two decades writing about the IT industry.

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Is mainframe outsourcing effective enough to mitigate support problems?
Yes and no. Outsourced mainframe IT personnel are needed, but they need to be supervised. Hiring outsourced workers from overseas may have what it takes to handle the mainframe but they lack in many other qualities in education that may not meet the needs of all their customers. When there are support problems that may be too much for your outsourced help, then you turn to the expert supervisor.

Actually there is a lot of highly skilled mainframe talent available. Businesses that have need for such skilled talent must start to "Think Outside the Box". e.g. Seriously consider contracting on a remote telecommute basis. This has several advantages, the main one being a 50% or better reduction in the hourly rate for such talent. Having people "on site" means additional costs if you have to bring in a contractor from "out of town". Letting the contractor work remotely is a much cheaper alternative. Want to see their "smiling face"? There's Skype and other alternatives that allow people to interact in real time verbally and visually.

New programming software is also needed.

The major mainframe support issue is the difficulty of changing applications with more than 30 years of development history.  Does sane person believe that replacing a complex mess of legacy COBOL code with an even more complex mess of Java and web services will solve the problem?

For the past few years we have been working on a new programming system to directly solve the issue of solution complexity.  See for information.