People possessing mainframe skills will be in high demand by key UK and European employers, says James O'Malley, Senior Director, Mainframe, CA. However, mainframes are changing and new skills are required.

Recent research into 180 organisations across six European countries has demonstrated that the mainframe, a technology platform over 45 years old, remains a lynchpin of enterprise computing. Distributed networks have been integrated with mainframes to handle today's high-demand, 24/7 availability IT requirements.

Whether it's a mobile phone call, visiting the cashpoint or printing bank statements for millions of customers, most large businesses wouldn't survive without their oldest but most reliable computing resource.

Mainframes are also a highly cost-efficient IT option for organisations that want to drive down costs in the current 'down economy'. Far from being a dying breed, IT staff who possess mainframe skills will be in increasingly high demand by key UK and European employers.

This is a surprising picture since mainframe hardly tops the list of top talking points. Why is it core to the enterprise? Why was mainframe ignored for many years? What type of training will be needed for this specialised area in the future?

Built to last

Mainframe computers are a near 50-year success story. Characterised by their extensive input-output facilities and high utilisation rates, mainframes support massive throughput of items such as retail banking systems, utility billing systems and 'always on' customer service.

Demand for their computing power - commonly expressed as MIPS (millions of instructions per second) - is growing worldwide, but it is mainframes' highly engineered redundancy that supports their reliability and security.

Mainframes can run multiple operating systems and operate as a number of virtual machines, replacing the need for hundreds of servers. They can operate for years without interruption, with repairs and hardware upgrades taking place during normal operation. Once seen as clunky and resource-heavy, mainframe is now regarded as super-efficient and paradoxically, energy-efficient.

Our recent research* showed the mainframe's remarkable workload capabilities: mainframes still handle 55 per cent of organisations' data; this rises to 59 per cent for 3000+ employee organisations and peaks at 64 per cent for firms where the mainframe is connected with distributed, server-based computing systems. 

The platform's resilience is striking too. Sixty-five per cent of respondents said the mainframe is an 'incredibly secure environment'. Where the mainframe is a fully connected resource, 52 per cent of all respondents state that 'the system never goes down'.

Despite shouldering the bulk of large firms' computing workloads, mainframes take up a modest proportion of IT spending - as low as 13 per cent in UK organisations polled, with an average of 19 per cent across Europe.

But in some ways, the ever-reliable mainframe became a victim of its own success, particularly in terms of IT skills and long-term development. By the 1980s, many company departments tired of the rigid resource allocation imposed on their daily operations by the mainframe-based IT department. Firms found that smaller servers and PCs that gave users much greater control over their own computing could be purchased and deployed at modest cost.

In time, as PCs replaced the old-style terminals traditionally used for mainframe interactions, new mainframe installations were restricted mainly to large retail organisations, government and banks. Not only were mainframes thought to be a dying breed, the associated skills were widely considered to be irrelevant in the age of autonomous company divisions and distributed computing networks. 

Filling the skills gap

With the development of service-oriented architectures and web 2.0 services, distributed, web-enabled computing environments have been successfully integrated with the mainframe, delivering fully connected resources and 24 / 7 applications. Companies have realised mainframe skills are just as vital as Windows, Oracle and web design skills to maintain applications and support customer service.

However, it was a common skills problem being experienced across 21st-century business that caused a genuine change in thinking about the mainframe.

The worldwide trend of retirement of the 'baby boomer' generation has posed problems for all types of organisation. Suddenly, organisations' career mainframers were retiring, putting pressure on services.

With some organisations likely to see 20 per cent or more of their staff retiring over the next decade, mainframe specialists’ departure is leaving a skills gap that needs to be filled.

In our research, 37 per cent of respondents cited a 'relevant skills shortage' as a threat for continued mainframe use in the organisation. Fifty-two per cent of all respondents agreed that a web-oriented graphical user interface (GUI) would make the mainframe more attractive to less experienced members of the IT department and help to close the skills gap.

Which skills are needed today to fulfil the modern mainframe's critical role in enterprise computing?

At this point, it's probably helpful to think of the mainframe as a car. Operating it divides into three main areas - mainframe operations (day-to-day running - the driver who identifies a problem), technical support (systems programmers - the mechanics who fine-tune the engine), and software development (engine designers).

These diverse mainframe programming and application management skills will generally take a minimum of five years' training to acquire, but they will provide a range of exciting senior-level opportunities for both existing enterprise IT teams and new entrants to computing.

Career path

The way that people enter the mainframe profession is changing too. Only a few years ago, the mainframe community barely had any structured qualifications, let alone a career path. Qualifications were developed with specialist vendors and training organisations. Too often, years of expert, carefully supervised on-the-job training went unrecognised.

Now there are a range of career entry points, including large firms' in-house training courses, mainframe manufacturers' and software providers' qualifications as well as new formal qualifications from organisations such as BCS (see below).

We are even seeing dedicated company training programmes that attract non-IT graduates as well as computing graduates, such are the analytical and operational challenges that mainframes creates.

The platform's ultra-reliability and the complexity of modern service delivery will ensure that mainframe will remain critical to business in the future too. Academic and IT industry initiatives are leading to new entrants and new tools that will boost mainframe’s appeal for Generation Y and other workforce entrants. You do not have to know 'older' programming languages such as COBOL to run the mainframe!

Mainframe qualifications

The resurgence of mainframe has led to a range of professional development opportunities:

In 2008, BCS launched the BCS Mainframe Technology Professional certification (BCS MTP). It is split into three different paths: operations technical support and software development. In the future, third party software vendors (such as IBM or CA) will be able to add their separate modules.

CA has established its own mainframe 2.0 programme, including a Mainframe Centre of Excellence in Prague.

IBM has established a mainframe academic programme for system z mainframe staff.

System z mainframe professionals can address their development needs through the zNextGen online community.

*Mainframe - surviving and thriving in a turbulent world, CA, June 2009