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Mainframes Span the Globe

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:34 PM


Some brands seem ubiquitous worldwide: fast-food chains are one example. And though one might assume that the same cuisine is being served 24/7, somewhere/everywhere, a few individuals inexplicably want to verify that for themselves.

Similar same-everywhere thinking might be easy to apply to mainframes, though trying to log on to them all could be even harder than consuming the same food worldwide. But if you've ever eaten at a chain restaurant away from your home country, you likely noticed at least some regional menu variations.

Similarly, does location matter, or is "a mainframe a mainframe?"

Syzygy Incorporated's Brian Westerman—who has installed and supported mainframes all over the world—including in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Middle East, South America, U.S., Iceland, Greenland and the South Pole—describes installation and support as nearly identical. Some countries or continents have lagged mainstream mainframe evolution; IBM's Asia/Pacific-based Tim Sipples mentioned on the IBM-Main discussion list a customer moving from a system installed in early 1999 "to a shiny new IBM z System machine" gaining "about 19 years (and counting) of new features and capabilities" to exploit.

In fact, some areas were for decades denied access to S/360 and following generations by the Cold War's Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) regime. To some extent they made do with local or regional imitations, or illegally bypassed controls. In either case, when restrictions loosened, years of chasing fast-moving technology followed, as economics allowed. But that long-closed window allowed other platforms to gain penetration, now somewhat being displaced by modern IBM Z systems.

Separate from COCOM restriction influences were various mainframe clones, now mostly disappeared. A Japanese vendor even created a proprietary mainframe OS and associated peripherals. Finland's Juha Vuori, principal, Juha Vuori Oy, says that the "mainframe has always been the platform for critical applications" though it's sometimes disparaged as legacy technology. His company provides services for mainframe sites in Finland and potentially other Nordic countries.

Mainframe growth in other areas has different drivers, such as data center power, space and cooling carbon offset requirements for Bank of New Zealand. Red Hat's Chief Security Strategist, North America Public Sector, Shawn Wells notes that in European banking, Linux on z Systems often implemented digital transformation strategy, for example by Handelsbanken. And in Latin America, governments like Recife in Brazil "created citizen services (e.g., tax records and parking tickets)." He notes that non-U.S. deployments generally focused on mission/transformation versus using extra capacity generalities in the U.S. market.

Educational Opportunities

The IBM Academic Initiative spans the globe with outreach, linking employers, educational institutions and IBM. Online learning from Marist University and others help educate the next mainframer generation; the associated Master the Mainframe contest motivates students to learn, prepare for careers and have the opportunity to win prizes, with no previous experience necessary. Showing the mainframe's global reach, the top three 2016 Master the Mainframe World Championship winners were from Spain, Canada and China. Participants develop mainframe loyalty similar to that of Vuori, who sees "stability and security as the basic inherent component that will sell mainframes in the future", so he'll stay in the field as long as possible.

Len Santalucia, CTO, Vicom Infinity Inc., mentions that The Open Mainframe Project, a Linux Foundation collaborative project, group believes hackathons encourage students and enthusiasts to adopt new technologies. He notes that the blockchain technology provides opportunities for cross-industry solutions. Based on this, the project sponsored a blockchain-based Hyperledger hackathon to promote the open source platform and solutions among Ecole Privée des Sciences Informatiques, a Computer Science University in France, students in October in Europe. The team creating the most innovative solution will win a visit to IBM's Montpellier campus.

Language Support

Years ago, I was challenged by language when converting an elaborate computer graphics package supporting the IBM 2250 Graphics Display Unit from CP/67 to VM/370's CMS. While written in assembler language, it was commented in French, having been developed at the University of Grenoble. Long after two years of high school study, my French was shaky at best, and didn't include mainframe technology.

Even if mainframe assembler language is a universal facility, other contexts raise issues (error messages, manuals, program comments, etc.). Lacking the Babel fish universal translator featured in the epic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it's easy to think that diverse languages create an obstacle to mainframe use and support. In fact, opinions differ on that.

Historically, IBM provided "national language support" for non-English speaking countries. But David Boyes, CTO, Sine Nomine Associates, notes decline of its messages and documentation. "In most cases," he says, "English and Japanese Kanji are the only supported languages; hooks and libraries to display it are still there, but the translated text isn’t. Even the uppercase English only variant for messages has been dropped." Boyes calls this a barrier to technology adoption: having to read complex documentation in a foreign language can be a steep hurdle.

Westerman disagrees, observing that most sites have capable English language skills and elect not to run translated messages. He's been told that having manuals in digital format simplifies, when necessary, cutting and pasting text into translation programs. He adds that, "It's only English idioms and jokes giving problems, and IBM books are anything BUT funny." In fact, sometimes customers prefer technical materials in English because that's understandable, while translations can be baffling.

In Canada, while there are long-standing dual-language federal requirements for things like consumer product packaging and for government services, these requirements don't generally apply to non-consumer products like mainframes.

Location Considerations

Pre-technology-era timezones and daylight saving time artifacts linger annoyingly, with time zones especially affecting organizations doing business or distributed across regions, and daylight saving time being a reliable twice-yearly topic on mainframe discussion lists. Coping requires correct configuration/coordination of hardware and software, plus remembering whether it's 3 p.m. or 3 a.m. where you're about to call.

Similarly, patience is required when dealing with cross-border colleagues, customers, suppliers or users, who likely bring to bear different language skills, cultural impacts and knowledge levels. Of course, the same might be said to apply to many intra-country relationships.

Another geographic variation, while not inherent to the mainframe, matters: laws and regulations such as data collection, protection, transmission and storage are different in different places. This affects allocating applications to worldwide data centers and can influence business continuity planning. Export restrictions still apply to selected technologies; while these will be followed by vendors, they can prevent installing uniform technologies in multiple data centers.

Loyal Base

A universal mainframe aspect is loyalty to the platform: Vuori mentions having worked with one company running core application under z/VSE and previous versions since early '90s with no migration plans.

It's not surprising that though mainframes around the world have much in common, there are enough small and large variations to be interesting, if not challenging. After all, when I worked in a corporate data center, we had trouble having all our IBM 6670 printers delivered with consistent options because our closely clustered buildings were split across two IBM branch offices.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology for decades. Email him at