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Opinion

Mainframe management gets its swagger.
Simon Perry By: Simon Perry, Principal Associate Analyst - Sustainability, Quocirca (Moved)
Published: 24th July 2009
Copyright Quocirca © 2009
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Back in the old days kids followed in the footsteps of their parents and their parent's parents. A proud tradition of craftsmanship, skills and knowledge continuing across the generations—weavers, bakers, potters, bankers. But never (oddly) Mainframe Systems Programmers. Indeed, so loath have been multiple generations of twentysomething IT graduates to code Assembler and JCL, and to delve into the minutia of z/OS administration, that all that stands between here and the final death of the IBM mainframe market is a thin greying line of aging expertise. Granddad might be eyeing a permanent move to the potting shed, but for now he's still got a PTF to apply and an SMP/E install to finish. The green thumbs of retirement have had to wait for just one more day of typing in front of the green screen.

In all seriousness, the aging of the workforce that keeps the world's mainframes running is now recognised as a serious problem. Despite oft-quoted claims of the platform's death, the mainframe continues to be the computing engine that powers much of the economy's basic processing functions. Withdraw cash from an ATM, use that cash to buy produce from a major retailer, and later swipe your credit card to refuel your car and with every transaction you've probably cycled through the processing engine of a mainframe sitting quietly in the background. Despite the efforts of the UNIX/Linux/Windows vendors over the years to swap all that mainframe workload to a range of distributed computing architectures no real credible alternative has emerged for the bulk of the high end processing needs served by the 'frame. So we are left with a lot of business critical processing taking place on a platform that is managed by a workforce scheduled to retire en masse within the coming five to ten years.

The challenge now is to make what is seen as a legacy platform manageable by a new generation of systems programmers—though it might be more accurate to say that the first challenge to be solved is getting a new generation even interested in working with the 'frame to begin with. In the eyes of infrastructure vendor CA these two problems are intimately connected.

The tips of CA's roots are firmly anchored deep in the mainframe utility and management markets—so much so that arguably it has become inextricably linked in the eyes of Wall Street and customers alike as "a boring legacy platform vendor." CA is the largest mainframe software ISV, second only to IBM in share of the mainframe wallet. Of course CA does a whole lot more than mainframe software, from distributed systems and network management to security management to project and portfolio governance. Indeed CA has been so focussed on building capability in such markets for much of the last fifteen years that they have allowed themselves to take the foot off the mainframe accelerator, whilst turning their eyes away from the road ahead.

CA is, of late, a vendor with a mission to not only revive their own mainframe business, but along the way to do no less than help resurrect the overall fortunes of the platform. Under the leadership of EVP Chris O'Malley, CA's mainframe business unit has put great emphasis and effort toward entirely modernising the manner in which the platform is managed and maintained. CA's mainframe ambitions were announced in November 2008, however announcements aren't delivery. In the intervening months O'Malley's team have made good the first stages of their roadmap promises and after much development effort are now busy working with a reasonably wide customer base to beta test an entirely new way of installing and maintaining software on the platform.

CA's Mainframe 2.0 initiative has thus far delivered (in beta) an entirely GUI driven way of performing the esoteric task of installing software packages, driving the (IBM) proprietary SMP/E install process. This author speaks from experience in describing SMP/E as a detail oriented task entirely devoid of drag, drop and click. "Intuitive" is not a word one would naturally use to describe the process by which almost all software is installed on the mainframe platform.

CA's Mainframe Software Manager tool uses GUIs (served natively from the 'frame) and software interface constructs that will be familiar to anyone who has ever installed software on a PC or Mac platform. In doing so, the skillset required to manage the platform has been dramatically reduced, while CA's (not independently verified) benchmarks indicate that the time taken to install a product is also dramatically reduced when their tool is used, compared to a native SMP/E process.

Meanwhile CA has gone on a recruitment drive of their own to woo recent graduates to work on the development of the Mainframe 2.0 initiative. O'Malley and his team have logged up an unenviable CO2 footprint in an attempt to build a buzz amongst the existing mainframe community as well as in the ranks of soon to be IT graduates. Perhaps it is also a statement about the state of the job market, but CA reports that a surprisingly high number of students have crowded into O'Malley's university recruitment sessions over the last six months or so.

Turning around the fortunes of the platform is not without significant challenges however. Arguably this is an effort that software vendor CA can never hope to pull off without the support of IBM, even while the New York vendor attempts to take software marketshare away from Big Blue. Achieving the balancing act of co-opetition between CA and IBM will be a delicate task as the strategic goals are balanced against the hard headed tactical sales targets that drive field sales force behaviour.

Meanwhile CA is only at the first stage of delivering against its multi year and multi step development roadmap for Mainframe 2.0. The evidence of CA's efforts so far is promising and existing mainframe customers would do well to pay attention to CA's strategy and execution, especially if the aging workforce problem is one that is real and increasingly urgent to those customers. CA may yet make the mainframe so interesting to the next generation of IT workers that the platform will stop being one that is "Whotevva - FAIL", and start being a...well...whatever it is that you young people today call something that is right-on and groovy.

Quocirca recently attended CA's Industry Analyst symposium in Ottawa. The author worked for CA until 2007, and today holds no financial interest in the vendor.

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