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Ansible for IBM Z User Spotlight Series: Mike Fontanetta


Ansible for IBM Z User Spotlight Series

In this series we shine a light on the people who make the Ansible community thrive. We share the inspiring stories of users who combine experience, skill, and curiosity to shape strategies, influence organizations, and take our tools to new heights.

Getting to know Mike Fontanetta

Mike Fontanetta is well known in the mainframe community. He’s had a rich career spanning multiple decades, experiences, roles, technologies, and organizations. Mike is recognized as a Distinguished Technologist at Ensono, where he currently works in the Product and Technology Organization leading mainframe innovation engineering.

Q: Tell us about your career journey so far.
I started with the mainframe before PCs were invented. I first worked the third shift in computer operations. I moved through jobs often, averaging two years at any given place. I’d work hard, rise quickly through the ranks, get one or two promotions, and then move to another organization. Back then, much like today, there were lots of opportunities in the marketplace.

During this early period, I did DASD (direct access storage device) management and got introduced to SMF (System Management Facilities) data. I also started teaching myself to
program in various languages, including COBOL and Assembler. In those days, hardware and systems broke frequently, so system programmers would come in at night and on the weekends to fix them. I spent time with them and learned how the equipment worked, both programmatically and physically.

I eventually became a system programmer, but I decided to pursue a role that didn’t require me to work nights and weekends, so I took a hands-on technology role in capacity planning. Later, I led global capacity management at a company that got bought by Ensono. The new owners wanted Ensono to grow. And indeed, they doubled their revenues in the first year. Since then, they've grown to about 800 million USD in revenue per year. I jumped in early and started helping them sell services, but also volunteered to help during other sales opportunities; I wanted to make sure that we left the best impression on clients from a technology point of view.

While running capacity management at Ensono, I was asked to help assist their Advisory and Consulting practice. My role was to advise clients on their mainframe needs, including sizing and upgrade strategies, so I became the person that talked about new and leading-edge technologies. This led me to get involved with growing communities, like the Ansible Guild.

Soon after, I started running Engineering and got my own engineering mainframe, which is what I’ve been working toward my entire life. I started working on Python, ZOAU, and automation with Ansible. I soon needed a team member, so I hired Steven Perva, and together we hold down the fort on the innovation side of Ensono. As an organization we focused more on the non-mainframe platform with Ansible than the mainframe platform. We've had a lot of success, and we’re starting to get traction on the mainframe side. We also present at all the conferences, are involved in all the guilds, and make sure to stay in tune with IBM and all the major vendors, regardless of their stature in the industry. 

“We’ve proven that we can save thousands of hours by leveraging Python 
and ZOAU and driving automation through Ansible.”

Q: What is your perception of the mainframe and overall IT today? 
I've been saying for years that the mainframe is another server in the hybrid IT ecosystem, so we should promote equality and lower the barriers between platforms. Instead of dedicated mainframe system programmers or Linux system admins, we should have system administrators who can administer both mainframe and Linux systems. Linux on Z and UNIX System Services within z/OS are often not core competencies of z/OS system programmers, so we should get mainframe sysprogs and Linux sysadmins working together.

I envision a time in the future where the silos between mainframe sysprogs and Linux sysadmins will be a historical footnote. As an example, while I’m assigned to the mainframe line of business in the Product and Technology organization, my work developing automation is no longer an activity that is focused exclusively on the mainframe. 

Q: How does your approach compare to that of others in similar roles? 
I'm an outlier. What you’ve heard about system programmers being set in their ways and resistant to change is rather prevalent. For example, we often hear that they don’t want to use Python when they can use REXX. My response is that we must be ready for the future. We must make sure that the next generation of system programmers is prepared. They're learning Ansible and Python in school, not REXX. We need to pivot to these new languages.

Q: You've been named an IBM Champion for 2023. What does that mean to you?
It's unbelievably flattering. I’ve invested a lot of my time professionally to get to where I'm at today. This recognition, as well as having received the Challenge Coin Award—one of only two coins to be awarded outside of IBM—has been a humbling experience.

Q: What exciting things are you working on lately?
I’m actively working on several significant projects, and I’ll share a high-level on a couple that you might find interesting.

Envision is Ensono-developed IP that provides a single pane of glass view for all platforms we support for clients. We’ve recently introduced Envision Advisor to this stack, which provides actionable insights for clients on supported systems. My team has active projects to introduce the mainframe-focused insights to Envision Advisor.

My group, Innovation Engineering, is developing a mainframe auto discovery solution that keeps our CMDB (Configuration management database) accurate and up-to-date for the large number of assets that we manage. We’re leveraging my team’s IP in conjunction with a vendor’s automated discovery offering to cover the areas where the vendor’s product has gaps. I’m also providing recommendations to the vendor on how to improve their product as well. 

Q: How did you get started with Ansible?
Ansible wasn't something I went looking for on my own. At the time, Python had just been introduced on the mainframe and ZOAU had just been released. I saw Python as an opportunity to bring back a level of programming for us as technologists, so we were really focused on those solutions. An IBM team introduced me to Ansible. After I saw how Ansible can help make things happen quickly, automate things effectively, simplify complicated problems, and make things work better overall, I started to view Ansible as our most viable solution.

Q: You discovered that Ensono was already using Ansible, but not in the mainframe space. How did you leverage your company’s prior experience with Ansible?
Discovering that Ensono used Ansible on other platforms quickly had me engaged with our internal team, and I’ve remained connected and tracked with their projects ever since. Our team is doing interesting things with Ansible and it has continued to be of high interest to me.

Ansible and Python being platform-agnostic made connecting with other Ansible users and teams easier. By sharing experiences of how Ansible could be leveraged, we found commonalities between the outcomes we’re each driving forward. We’re currently leveraging my innovation mainframe as the Ensono Ansible mainframe lab environment, which provides a common environment for us to gain experiences. 

“The capability to scale and run things in parallel is something that we never would have achieved without something like Ansible.”

Q: Ansible can unite the distributed, networking, and mainframe areas of the business. Did that interest you? 
Having the capability to initiate and update common processes across our supported environment was high on the list of desired outcomes. While my focus was the mainframe platform, other teams have a similar interest in the distributed and networking environments. One of the unexpected outcomes was our alignment and partnering with the other platform teams.

Like most organizations over time, we’ve deployed scripted processes to LPARs to complete common activities. These processes are a key component to our support capability, and in many cases are similar across clients. What Ansible provides is the ability to maintain and deploy updates at a greater velocity. We’ve also found that more complexity can be developed using Python and ZOAU scripting. This really takes us to the next level of capabilities. 

Using Ansible, we developed complex scripts that give us an automated way to engage with multiple LPARs and analyze dozens of subsystems at the same time. The capability to scale and run things in parallel is something that we never would have achieved without an Ansible solution.

Q: Ensono is a managed service provider. How do your clients react when they hear that you're using Ansible to manage their environments?
Our experience has been that clients are accepting the changes needed to enable Ansible. I was directly involved with reaching out to clients to obtain approval for these changes, and during those conversations, virtually every client said, “We need this for ourselves, and we need to do this to our own application checks. This will help us reduce the time it takes to test and validate applications.”

Q: How do you help others warm to your perspective on Ansible?
I present my case through facts and measured success. For instance, by using a Python Ansible script, we can stand up a new CICS region in about 15 minutes. It takes teams significantly longer (hours) to complete this same task. When I meet with teams, I demonstrate how we improve coverage and save thousands of hours, and how they can, too. But I always give them an opportunity to describe how they're going to check thousands of CICS regions—at 20 minutes per region—in a two-hour timeframe. If they can show me how that’s possible, then I'm interested in hearing more. But if they can't, then I ask if I can show them how to do it with Ansible.

Q: What other pain points have Ansible or ZOAU solved for your organization?
The short answer is that we found Ansible and Python are future-proofing support capabilities for our client’s critical environments. Ansible scripts using Python and ZOAU have aided in addressing the new hire skill gap. We can now leverage Python, the most popular language in the industry today. Many of our new hires have Python experience, and this expedites the learning curve.

Team members who have been in IT for a longer time like me have developed REXX skills and scripts over the years. We’ve been able to demonstrate how those scripts can be executed through an Ansible playbook. The REXX scripts can be used as-is. In some cases, those scripts are being re-imagined through Python with more advanced capabilities. 

Our clients benefit because we can leverage existing legacy scripting as needed, and then when new associates re-develop scripts, they gain experience with REXX syntax. This has shown to be beneficial to everyone.

Q: How can IBM help Ansible and ZOAU grow?
Many organizations are moving to a managed service provider relationship, and clients recognize the benefits. That said, many Ansible collections aren’t geared for managed service providers. We do our best to leverage the collections—they’re well written and usable—but we often find that the collections are better suited for a standalone organization than for the scale of environments that we support.

Another challenge is communicating playbook execution success to z/OS system programmers. Today they must log into the console to track results. To address this, we completed an MVP workflow that communicates with our ServiceNow environment. We see this as a possible path forward as we update tickets automatically and communicate results with the sysprogs and operational teams.

Q: What's your view of open source software on the mainframe? 
Open-source solutions (OSS) have been available for years on the CBT tape, for example. While not necessarily new, the types of OSS available today are very different and more common to those used on Linux systems. I feel OSS is a component of the modern cloud connected mainframe, and the adoption is critical to long-term platform success. The biggest challenge is security, which is something we must be vigilant about and focused on. I believe it's up to developers to ensure that their solutions are secure, and for us to test and validate that those solutions are secure, to verify that the developers are following best practices.

Q: Are there other success drivers for the mainframe? 
Lowering the barriers between different platforms is critical. Whether managing mainframe, Linux, or Windows server farms, what we really need is the capability to administer an overall IT ecosystem through unified teams. We should have a standard approach regardless of platform, processing, or data storage location. I know some people feel that this is a utopia we likely won’t see in the near future, and I don’t disagree, but to me it’s the direction we need to move toward.

Q: You've had an amazing run with the mainframe. Any advice on how experienced mainframers can help persons new to the platform?
Back in the day, you learned quickly through experiences, because hardware and software failed more frequently. Restoration of service was critical which had us lean in and correct the issue as soon as possible. With that in mind, my advice to experienced mainframers is to help the newer people be exposed to that kind of learning. To encourage them to jump on the mainframe and dedicate time to it, invest the time in learning and obtaining as much hands-on experience as possible.

Stay up to date with the Ansible User Spotlight Series and Ansible for IBM Z community

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Check out the last User Spotlight Series article here

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Sun June 04, 2023 01:56 PM

Thanks Mike for sharing your journey.  I remember working together on a project back when you were managing the Capacity team and I was a Z- architect.  This is one of the great things about the platform, we are exposed to a vast assortment of technologies and a decade later you meet people who followed a similar path you now share!