If you can identify the major worries of any group of professionals at a specific point in time, you are usually left with a reliable snapshot of the main priorities and challenges facing that niche. So what are the most pressing concerns keeping mainframe IT managers from sleeping soundly?
Toward the end of last year, Macro 4 ran a poll at the GSE UK Conference
(organized by GUIDE SHARE EUROPE, the premier IBM user group in Europe) to discover just those issues. Based on a sample of 65 show attendees, here—in descending order of importance—are the key mainframe-related worries identified, together with my own thoughts and reflections about those worries.
1) Controlling Mainframe IT Costs
As you’d expect, managing the IT budget is a big priority and the top worry our survey identified (cited by 70 percent of the sample) was “controlling mainframe IT costs.”
One of the important considerations here is the way that big iron users can limit their costs substantially by ensuring their software uses computer processing power efficiently—something that many organizations may not be taking full advantage of.
IBM’s Variable Workload License Charges is a usage-based charging framework that links a company’s monthly license fees to the processing power, measured in Millions of Service Units per hour (MSU), consumed by their mainframe software. This provides the opportunity to save money by correcting inefficient code so that your applications consume fewer resources in the shape of MSUs. To help tackle this, specialist mainframe performance tuning tools are available to identify and correct the errors and efficiencies in application code that build up over time.
2) Succession Planning
The next most commonly cited worry (highlighted by 45 percent in our poll) was succession planning for mainframe staff as existing mainframe administrators and developers approach retirement.
Of course, the mainframe skills crisis has been a concern for many years, making succession planning an increasingly worrying problem.
The mainframe community (users and vendors) as a whole has been doing its bit to address the challenge. There are initiatives to give IT students more opportunities to work with mainframe technology. At the same time, a variety of tools are emerging to automate development, testing and operations processes, and to make the platform more accessible and easier to use for newer IT workers—e.g., by using intuitive Web-enabled and Eclipse interfaces. And of course IBM is continuing to invest in the platform to ensure it evolves and stays relevant and exciting to those who want to build a career in enterprise IT today. The powerful IBM z13 mainframe, for example, is the result of $1 billion investment and a five year development effort, designed specifically with mobile, cloud and big data in mind.
It may be that in the future organizations use a mix of specialist and generalist staff to support the mainframe. Generalist administrators—armed with user-friendly administrator tools and automation—look after the mainframe as part of overseeing a range of other platforms in the data center. Dedicated mainframe specialists can be brought in as trouble-shooters to handle tasks requiring more in-depth mainframe expertise.
3) Web and Mobile Technology Challenge
With technology increasingly going mobile, 28 percent of the survey respondents mentioned concerns of adapting mainframe applications to work with mobile technology and 21 percent said they were worried about integrating with customer-facing Web applications.
Often, if existing mainframe applications are integrated with mobile or Web applications that are accessed by the public, there are worries about the possibility of slower response times for customers. The increase in online interactions could drive up the processing workload way beyond what the applications were originally developed to cope with. Think of all those banking customers checking their account balances on their phones, tablets or laptops.
Similarly, there is the risk of higher mainframe processing costs or CPU upgrade charges due to the extra workload.
Systems management teams need to make sure that their mainframe applications can maintain service levels and keep costs in check if they are opened up to Web and mobile access. Part of this is about making sure the applications continue to use processing power efficiently—again with the help of application performance tuning to identify and rectify application coding errors and inefficiencies.
4) Modernizing the Mainframe
17 percent of the sample said they worry about modernizing the mainframe to make it easier for the next generation of IT staff to work with the platform.
Many of those who work in development and support roles on the mainframe are still using “green screen” interfaces that involve keying in commands to interact with software rather than using today’s more intuitive, menu-driven interfaces. For newer workers, the need to know the right commands before you can work with, and contribute on, the mainframe is a major hurdle.
One answer is to introduce more intuitive graphical interfaces, which require less training, are easier to use and increase productivity for new recruits (and experienced users alike). Many organizations are replacing or augmenting their 3270 development environment with Eclipse and open-source tools, for instance. Eclipse is a powerful, free development environment that is fast becoming the standard for Java development, that can also be used as a development environment for your mainframe applications written in COBOL, PL/1, REXX, etc. It’s widely taught and used in universities so the younger generation are very familiar with it.
Overhauling the development environment, however, is a big cultural change so anyone considering this needs to tread very carefully. Make sure you involve all the key stakeholders, including existing experienced development and support staff. It’s obviously essential that they buy into the benefits of adopting the new approach before it’s rolled out.
It’s natural for people to pay attention to the concerns that relate to their working life. However, what the survey highlights is that three out of the four areas people are worrying about (succession planning, supporting mobile and Web applications, and mainframe modernization) are about ensuring the mainframe continues to be relevant and productive now and into the future. That’s a very positive takeaway.
Keith Banham has worked in IT for 35 years and is the R&D manager at Macro 4, responsible for the company's mainframe suite of products. Keith started as an Assembler programmer at a major bank and during his 30 years at Macro 4 has worked on many of the company’s solutions for application lifecycle management, application performance management, document management and session management. One of his recent roles was the modernization of these solutions by building web, Eclipse and mobile interfaces, as well as the modernization of Macro 4’s internal mainframe development environments.