Remote system programming used to mean using a keypunch machine outside the data center. But card decks still needed to get to the clunky 2540 or equivalent unit record device. Maybe we had a key or door code to do this ourselves, or maybe we handed it to an operator. Then, 3270-style devices allowed for increased distance—and hike—to and from our systems. Finally, networked terminals and workstations made location irrelevant. Whether in an office or working from home, z Systems programmers/administrators can now work from the next office, building, city, time zone or continent.
But should this be happening? Do today's system programmers need physical access to data centers? Why or why not? Does being able to see and touch one's systems hold real value, or is it just a matter of professional pride? And to what extent is it practical to have a lack of immediacy to data centers, operations staff, users or matters?
Local and Remote, Then and Now
According to Brian Westerman, director of research and development, Syzygy Inc., the company supports several dozen large and small sites remotely, worldwide. All of the sites require expertise, but not being on site has never been an issue. While Westerman remembers drag-out fights over whether or not systems programmers should be allowed in the computer room, he notes that "we (systems programmers) always won that argument, but now I wonder why I fought it for so long."
Stan King, IT executive, Information Technology Corp., believes that remote programming has come a long way in the past five years. "VPNs
into a data center are plentiful and very secure,” he says. "VNC [virtual network computing]
works extremely well to access non-3270 resources, such as the HMC, and programmers are comfortable with remote work as long as they control elements required for their tasks."
King notes that complete system control requires being able to Power on Reset a central processor complex, change LPAR controls, IPL images, remotely access master console, etc. "IBM has scores of developers in China that have access to their own LPARs in Poughkeepsie," he says, "and those individuals have complete control over their little piece of z Systems provisioning." For King, remote programming is becoming common and desirable.
Technology Bridges Distance
Remote support often arrives with company moves or other changes. After a data center consolidation, Frank Ramaekers, systems programmer, found himself 130 miles from systems he supported, preventing timely on-site emergency response, despite the fact that operations staff could be talked through problems, which can create errors and difficult to understand conversations.
For three years, Ramaekers has worked from home using a company-supplied laptop and docking station with connectivity via the internet, with VPN software accessing corporate intranet using TN3270 client for z/VM and z/VSE hosts, and a web browser for most hardware (HMC, TS7700 and DS8870). In addition, online collaboration and meeting software is useful for joining meetings and using z/VM for testing upgrades, and z/VM itself is especially valuable.
Tom Kern, a Department of Energy contractor, recommends working with SSD and maximum memory, enabling more windows open for local documentation, and email and chat clients, including VPN and TN3270 clients. The faster the CPU, Kern notes, the better to manage multiple windows and encryption.
Dual monitors allow access to an unrestricted browser on one screen while having company desktop on the other. This makes researching error messages, problems, or other assignments much easier, and now, you needn't worry about employer access restrictions.
Remote access/support technology can also include non-traditional devices such as tablets and smartphones. Willemina Konynenberg of Konynenberg Software Engineering favors console access that doesn’t depend on a properly configured and working network stack, and also notes that in former times, this was often a serial console with a modem. Other useful tools include automation for startup/shutdown and time changes, along with robust/secure telephone/email and videoconferencing.
Distance Changes Work
Remote support (i.e., telecommuting) reduces interactions with data center staff or management. To avoid "out-of-sight means out-of-mind" problems, it's important to be flexible, focused, available, responsive and somewhat visible. Being out of the mainstream mandates self-motivation, quick learning, locating and reading documentation.
Management must adapt, especially when it comes to hybrid (local and remote) teams. To do this, management can use email, telephone and messaging tools; provide team meetings with quality teleconferencing hardware, software and procedures; and structure all-hands meetings.
Distance can be advantageous in that it makes documentation shortcomings visible. Writing local knowledge-base material or industry articles can simultaneously be valuable contributions and reminders of employee worth.
Other benefits to remote working include:
- Avoiding commuting
- Economizing on lunch
- Health benefits with avoided contagion
Many home workers—myself included—would find it difficult returning to an office setting. Still, don't neglect your career in favor of technology enabling remote work.
Syzygy's Westerman generates a plethora of email and documents everything he does; he suggests exploring dictation tools for efficiency. "You need to keep track of exactly what you are working on,” he notes, "especially supporting several sites simultaneously." Westerman emphasizes the use of problem control systems to avoid becoming bogged down in little things. If this happens, the bigger issues slip away and you become ineffective. He believes in regular status meetings, reviewing problems and plans, and other coordination necessary to avoid losing positive control.
With so many hands managing systems, shared rigorous change logs are essential for shared responsibilities. Because being remote prevents access to central company libraries and technology reference material, it’s important to develop a personal set of reference manuals and documentation CDs. This will help avoid the struggle of accessing information online during a crisis. If you communicate with vendor staff, it’s crucial to build a locally stored contacts list. In addition, be sure to have procedures for develop, document, and practice problem alerting and escalation, and install business continuity planning and drills.
If the worst-case scenario is an operator occasionally reading messages and requiring spelled-out commands, at least there's no longer a front panel with hundreds of lights to interpret, and dozens of dials/switches to manipulate. The only limits that Kern found himself with were the inability to mount tapes, tear paper off the printer and press the “on” button. So while data centers may have gone dark, the remote work environment hasn't.
Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org