Toward a More Manageable Mainframe

Big Iron ISVs maintain the mainframe is hot. In the current economic climate, they suggest, it could really sizzle.

At its CA World conference, held this week in Las Vegas, CA Inc. outlined an ambitious new Big Iron-centric strategy, dubbed Mainframe 2.0. In this case, CA's invocation of Web 2.0 nomenclature isn't overreach: the mainframe is hot, CA and other ISVs maintain. In the current economic climate, they suggest, it could sizzle.

CA positions Mainframe 2.0 as an effort to simplify ongoing management and administration in mainframe environments. It's similar to IBM's own mainframe simplification initiative, unveiled two years ago, touting (at the time) a $100 million investment to make Big Iron systems easier to use and manage (see http://esj.com/Enterprise/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2199).

The same goes for CA's Mainframe 2.0 initiative. One of its core components is a usability retrofit to allow inexperienced IT staff to perform some mainframe administration tasks. CA also plans to automate its mainframe stack where it makes sense to do so; automation should eliminate some of the more mundane aspects of mainframe management, officials note.

Sales of mainframe tools currently account for about 60 percent of CA's software revenues, according to Chris O'Malley, general manager of CA's mainframe business unit. It's a number that O'Malley expects to grow, as customers -- shopping for value in the current business climate -- revisit (and consider expanding) their mainframe investments. It's a neat inverse of a situation which prevailed just a decade ago, when -- where customers chose to revisit their mainframe investments -- they typically shifted Big Iron workloads over to distributed systems.

"Effectively, the only workloads that were brought to the platform eight years ago were things like print server, which aren't that interesting or don't bring a lot of benefit to the customer. In the last 12 months, however, that has changed dramatically. For example, we are now seeing customers moving mission-critical Oracle applications to the mainframe The total cost benefits are very compelling and the mainframe requires a dramatically lower number of people to support these workloads once they get on the mainframe."

O'Malley cites other changes -- such as a return to (if not vanilla SAP R/2 then) SAP-on-the-mainframe. This repatriation of workloads is enabled as much by a growing acceptance of Big Iron's TCO advantages (i.e., much lower administrative and operating costs) as by Big Blue's efforts to promote affordable specialty processor engines such as the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) and the zSeries Integrated Information Processor (zIIP).

The upshot, he argues, is that the mainframe has come to be viewed as a platform-par-excellence for distributed service consolidation. "I was at an insurance company a couple of weeks ago that was a smaller z/OS site. They are doing SAP on the mainframe. DB2 is their data server, but they run the application under zLinux; that becomes the application server, and they have a plan over the next three years to migrate virtually all of their distributed environment to zLinux," he explains. "They will be 90 to 95 percent mainframe and just 5 to 10 percent traditional or distributed systems. That's something that you just didn't see eight years ago."

CA isn't the only mainframe ISV to cite an uptick in mainframe workloads having come home to roost. John McKenny, vice president of worldwide marketing with BMC, says he's also seeing an anecdotal increase in traditional workloads being repatriated back to Big Iron.

McKenney says BMC has added 100 new customers to its Control-M practice over the last year. Almost all of those were customers in distributed environments. "Many of the almost 100 new customers are distributed systems-only organizations. There's been very little new customer growth on the mainframe. Most of it is replacing competitive products. It's rare that we get a customer completely new to the mainframe. We just don't see very many flat-out new mainframe customers," said McKenny, in an interview in September.

On the other hand, McKenny stresses, a lot of existing mainframe shops have chosen to replace existing job scheduling tools with Control-M as they've revisited -- and, again, made a decision to expand -- their Big Iron practices. The attraction, he says, is platform portability: shops can use Control-M (and the Control-M administrative console) to manage scheduling across the enterprise.

"As they've maybe expanded their mainframe [usage] -- many [customers] have brought workloads back [to the mainframe], workloads that maybe they had moved over to distributed [systems] --- they realize that, hey, we need [a job scheduling tool] that can manage both of these [platforms]," he continues. "So we're seeing a lot of that -- customers that maybe took some of these [workloads] off [the mainframe] years ago deciding to bring them back now, because the cost saving [benefits] are there, the energy savings are there. There's really no disputing that that [mainframe] business is growing, primarily for this reason."

BMC, too, has led an effort to make its management tools easier to use, focusing not only on usability from the perspective of non-Big-Iron cognoscenti but on achieving a similar look-and-feel across both platforms. Everyone, it seems, has "usability religion." With good reason, says CA's O'Malley: many mainframe operators are between 55 and 62 years old; many of these people will probably retire from the workforce over the next decade. It's the much-anticipated "graying of the mainframe workforce" -- a trend that industry watchers such as Gartner Inc. have been hyping for the last five years.

Of course, the exodus of experienced mainframe operators hasn't yet come to pass. Nevertheless, the graying of the Big Iron workforce certainly seems like an authentic challenge; there's no arguing demographics, after all. Mainframe ISVs are taking it seriously: it's functioned as the impetus behind -- as the need for -- IBM's simplification initiative, CA's Mainframe 2.0, as well as simplification efforts from Compuware Corp., and other traditional Big Iron software players.

For CA (as with BMC, IBM, and other vendors), the emphasis isn't so much on training non-traditional IT staff on the intricacies of Big Iron management, but on standardizing the management experience for all platforms. Hence the emphasis on a consistent look-and-feel across CA's management toolset.

"We see it as an important part of sustaining the quality and the service of the platform as we go through a transition of a new workforce to get it aligned to the mainframe. A lot of innovation has to be brought to that. You need to be able to interrogate the software, know how it's configured, determine what is the optimal way to run your CA environment, so there's a lot of innovation that has to be brought to bear in order to make that happen," O'Malley comments.

"I think this transformation of management software gives [customers] a sense of comfort. It helps them to sleep at night. This generation of the graying workforce, most of them learned on the job, so this is just giving [non-traditional staff] an easier way to learn on the job. Of course, what's different today [about the mainframe] is that 30 years ago we didn’t think the mainframe was crash-proof. Today, there's the expectation that the mainframe doesn't ever go down."

O'Malley describes Mainframe 2.0 as "the biggest project [CA has] ever done on the mainframe," and pledges that his company plans to put its "money where [its] mouth is" to transform the mainframe management experience.

Even so, he suggests, administration in Mainframe 2.0 environments isn't ever going to be a completely in-house proposition. For this reason, O'Malley and CA talk up another looming trend -- what they call "out-tasking," or the outsourcing of some aspects of mainframe management.

"In the next five years, I believe that those tasks that require a deep or unique skill for which customers feel it's just not worth it to hire those kinds of people [internally], that they'll look for a different way of delivering that value. That's what we call out-tasking.

"What out-tasking offers is a way to complement existing mainframe staff to do things that you just don't want to hire people to do. Take compliance, for example. That's effectively a new need that's come about given the regulatory issues of the last few years. It's something that a lot of customers just can't master [internally], given the limited staff they have today."

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