Teaching new dogs old tricks

December 2009

Dog jumpingBrowser based graphical interfaces and more automation will help us solve the mainframe skills crisis says Alan Ackers, R&D Head at Macro 4.

We all know how hard it is teaching old dogs new tricks. But I think the opposite is also probably true: it is just as tough teaching new dogs old tricks. And that is one way of looking at the challenge of the mainframe skills crisis - trying to get new IT workers to take the load from long standing mainframe experts as they approach retirement.

IBM itself is working hard to turn out computer science graduates with at least some mainframe experience. Its IBM Mainframe Academic Initiative has supported mainframe training at hundreds of universities around the world, giving undergraduates and graduates access to mainframes and helping universities to incorporate the platform in their curricula.

But while fresh blood is urgently needed, one of the major problems is that many younger staff members see mainframes as old and cumbersome. They are more interested in working with hot technologies such as Java, SOA and Linux.

Do mainframes still matter?

Whatever the perception, mainframes are still essential to big business. Experts estimate that 60 per cent of business data is still stored on mainframe computers. And most Fortune 500 companies continue to use ‘big iron’ systems, which were originally introduced over 45 years ago.

But it is also no secret that many heads of IT are worried about how they will re-skill their departments with mainframe programmers and administrators to keep them ticking over. Who is going to fix our mainframe applications if they stop working properly?

And they know that even if it is possible to capture the interest of the younger generation, it is not realistic to expect them to immediately fill the gap left by veteran mainframe specialists who may have honed their skills over 30 years or so.

What needs to happen to address these issues?

Changing the ‘window’ onto the mainframe

One of the areas rightly receiving attention is the user interface or the ‘window’ onto the mainframe and supporting tools. This is historically a terminal screen interface with rows of text. It often requires the user to enter commands in order to navigate from screen to screen. There is relatively little in the way of contextual information to let the user know ‘where’ they are and where they are going.

Unsurprisingly, those brought up on Microsoft’s and Apple’s graphical user environments cannot easily adapt to this type of interface. It can seem clunky and onerous. And it must be an initial turn off to anyone who is new to the mainframe world.

So it is a relief that some mainframe technology providers are starting to introduce browser based graphical interfaces. These incorporate mouse control, windows, icons and ‘tree views’. And provide a richer and more familiar view of the system, enabling new users to locate specific information faster.

IBM has recently introduced this style of user friendly interface in the latest version of its system Z mainframe operating system, with the addition of a browser based management facility. And a number of software vendors have already brought in similar technology.  

Browser interfaces could unlock the door

But much of the mainframe industry still clings to the terminal display approach and this is holding up progress, because the wider adoption of browser style interfaces would not only make it easier for newcomers to work with mainframes it could also unlock the door to an effective way of transferring vital problem solving skills from retiring mainframe workers to the next generation.

These interfaces use standard protocols that could enable the capture of interactions between mainframe administrators and the applications they are supporting.

This makes it possible to create a detailed log of everything experienced mainframe workers do when responding to specific problems. Collating this data would effectively mean the possibility of bringing together many years of ‘hard earned’ mainframe expertise and creating a knowledge base that could be queried by less experienced staff.

Automating everyday mainframe tasks

From here, it is not a huge leap to imagine that a comprehensive knowledge base could be used to enable automation. A proportion of the everyday mainframe administration and support tasks could be automated to help take the burden off the dwindling number of experienced mainframe staff.

More automation could in fact help get us to a situation in which the industry recognises that it can function with fewer staff dedicated exclusively to the mainframe. Generalist administrators armed with the right degree of automation and user friendly administrator tools would be able to include mainframe support as part of overseeing a range of other platforms that might be sitting in the data centre.

In this version of the world, the dedicated mainframe specialists would act like high level trouble shooters, brought in as needed to handle complex tasks. And the generalist staff, who would have some mainframe administration in their job role, would not feel that they have to be locked into a mainframe career in place of anything else.

Using state-of-the-art applications and development technologies

We could get to this scenario quicker if mainframe IT departments made more use of some of the newer, state-of-the-art development practices, such as Java design patterns and SOA, when they build new applications or enhance existing ones. This would help new entrants feel that mainframes are very much a technology for today and the future.

Mainframes have actually evolved a great deal over the years and IBM has invested heavily in making sure it is now possible to use cutting edge development languages and exciting applications on the platform.

For example, the company recently introduced the System z Solution Edition Series, which are packages of hardware, software and services that help organisations deploy workloads such as data warehousing, electronic payments and disaster recovery onto their mainframes.

These and other recent investments certainly indicate that from the point of view of IBM the mainframe is very far from being a ‘dead dog’. And a large proportion of the world’s most significant organisations seem to agree. We just need to help newer IT recruits see that including mainframe experience on their career path is still ‘barking up the right tree’.


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  • 1
    old_mainframer wrote on 3rd Dec 2009

    Interesting - but can anybody explain why (in my experience at least) Unix folk PREFER to use an old style terminal interface and line commands, even when a graphical interface is available?

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  • 2
    Will Stewart wrote on 23rd Dec 2009

    Interesting question old_mainframer. The command line interface in a UNIX shell such as Bourne, Korn or C-shell is very powerful and UNIX commands are logically structures and easy to remember. To try to deliver this much capability in a GUI would mean screens full of option menus and many tabs. It has been tried but it's just terribly inefficient because you spend more time hunting (and clicking) for things than actually doing them. Even Microsoft has acknowledged that system admin needs a CLI and has produced PowerShell. Having said that, my preferred method of interaction is using an interactive CLI shell (I prefer CSH just because that's what I learned first) in a window on GUI so we are not all longing for green screens and RS 232 connections.

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  • 3
    James wrote on 23rd Dec 2009

    The command line interface is more powerful, faster and efficient if you are an experienced user. However developers who are not as familiar with the system (which includes me) a GUI is essential. After all it was not DOS but Windows that allowed PCs to become ubiquitous.

    But back to the article. While IBM may have tools to allow modern languages to be used on mainframes many are still running applications written and maintained in languages like COBOL. It's not just the interface that needs an overhaul. The underlying systems need just as much attention.

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  • 4
    Bill wrote on 23rd Dec 2009

    "Unsurprisingly, those brought up on Microsoft’s and Apple’s graphical user environments cannot easily adapt to this type of interface. It can seem clunky and onerous. And it must be an initial turn off to anyone who is new to the mainframe world"

    You could quite easily flip this quote on its head and claim that those who started out in a pre-GUI world would find it difficult now. And yet, unsurprisingly, there are plenty of older baby boomers (myself included) who throughout their careers have used teletypes, 3270 terminals, Windows, Unix, even cards(!) and paper tape(!!). They've adapted as necessary - question is, why can't the younger generation?

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