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The aging mainframer

Mainframes are not going away anytime soon but mainframers are. In this column, Craig S. Mullins explores the impending problem of what will happen when all the mainframers retire.

A continuing, lingering perception that the mainframe is dead persists in some parts of the IT industry. It seems that we constantly hear that big IT shops are getting rid of their mainframes. But rarely do we ever hear about it after the fact. No, it is usually reported right when someone thinks that it is a good idea.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm sure there are some shops that have removed their mainframe. But I'm also sure that there are many more that thought about it but couldn't do it -- as well as those who wouldn't even consider it.

A bigger problem for the mainframe than the misguided notion that it is more costly than other computing platforms is the aging of the mainframe workforce. This is a reality. If you don't believe me, go to a SHARE conference and fix your eyeballs on some of the dinosaurs attending mainframe sessions there (myself included).

Basically, the problem is that mainframe experts are getting older and slowly retiring. And who will replace them? Most young IT professionals do not choose to work on mainframe systems, instead choosing to concentrate on the latest technology bandwagons -- things like Windows and Linux, open source and so on. Put one of these newbies in front of a terminal and introduce them to the joys of JCL, ISPF and COBOL, then watch them scream out the door yelling "I want my Java!"

But that is probably an inaccurate perception. You see, mainframe no longer means ugly old green screens. Today's mainframe environment is quite different from the mainframe of yesteryear. That hulking, water-cooled beast you may remember has been replaced with chip-based, CMOS, air-cooled systems. Today's mainframes are easier to hook together using Parallel Sysplex technology. And all of the "modern" technology used on Windows and Linux platforms works on the mainframe, too. Yes, that means XML, Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, Java and so on are all mainframe technologies, too.

Nowadays, the biggest mainframe "problems" are training and PR. Let's focus on training first. Mainframe technology is not taught by most universities these days; this really needs to change. What is needed is a comprehensive educational program delivered through major universities, as well as IT-focused institutions like DeVry and NorthFace universities. The program should be sponsored by major mainframe vendors like IBM and Computer Associates International, which could provide hardware and software, as well as a conduit for hiring graduates. Doing so would help to further promote and extend the mainframe -- a platform that benefits vendors' bottom lines.

And why would universities be interested in such a program? Employability of their graduates! As the current crop of mainframe experts retire, companies will have to replace them. I'd venture to guess that five to 10 years down the line, it will be easier for an IMS DBA, for example, to get a job offer than an Oracle DBA. The demand will be greater for the IMS talent because the supply is so low.

The publicity component is a bit more difficult. So much has been written and implied about the mainframe being dead that a lot folks believe it. But the mainframe continues to be a robust, viable component of today's IT infrastructure. Organizations continue to add more MIPS, deploy more applications and run their most important, mission-critical applications on mainframe computers. Until this aspect of the mainframe is publicized more, the existing perception is likely to linger.

Or maybe we should just give the mainframe a new name and pretend that it is a new technology with better availability, scalability and performance than the existing platforms.

Craig Mullins is president and principle consultant of Mullins Consulting Inc., in Sugar Land, Texas. He is the author of the DB2 Developer's Guide and Database Administration: The Complete Guide to Practices and Procedures, and has published several hundred articles on database technology.

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