Making the Business Case for Big Iron

A growing number of mainframe pros are trying to educate their colleagues and C-level executives about the business case for Big Iron.

On paper, at least, the mainframe can be something of a bitter pill for corporate bean counters to swallow. Its upfront costs are massive—at least when compared to commodity Windows or Linux servers, or shrink-wrapped, commodity software packages. It’s true value—and its compelling total cost of ownership (TCO) story—only becomes apparent over time, analysts say.

Mainframe technologists have been saying this all along, of course. But financial managers and C-level executives have often been resistant (and, in some cases, downright hostile) to such messaging. Tech-savvy mainframe pros, on the other hand, haven’t always been able to articulate a compelling Big Iron business case.

This is a situation mainframers are serious about addressing, however. From business-centric tracks at the mainframe world’s bi-annual SHARE conferences to technology training custom-tailored for business executives, mainframe advocates are trying to educate both their colleagues and an untapped audience of C-level executives about the business case for Big Iron.

It’s an approach mainframers have sometimes eschewed, or which—in part because of their overriding interest in technology—many quite simply haven’t considered, says SHARE secretary Jim Michael. But it’s essential that mainframe advocates be able to articulate the business case for Big Iron, he argues. In fact, any technologist, working in any field, should be able to do so, Michael points out.

To that end, he says, SHARE sponsors several business-oriented tracks for its tech-focused attendees. “If you’re going to be effective as a large systems IT person, you need to understand how what you are doing is driving value for the business. This is especially important for people who are looking at how [they] can advance in [their] career[s],” he observes.

“It’s not just about how much I understand the technology. If you’re a skilled technologist and you can also understand and articulate how your technology drives value for the business, [executives will] really want to talk to you—because you have a couple of skill sets that, taken together, can really help [them] with [their] business.”

IBM, too, recognizes the importance of helping mainframe pros understand the business case for Big Iron. Big Blue has no formal relationship with SHARE—SHARE, in fact, prides itself on its independence from IBM—but is nevertheless willing to send executives available to speak at SHARE conferences. “It’s what these businesses are all about. They want to drive shareholder value, and [increasing shareholder value] is about business value on some level, so IBM is helping us at SHARE prepare the folks who work in IT prepare for that conversation and help their managers make their best [business] case [for the mainframe],” Michael says.

Changes for Business, Not Technology

This is a point that’s echoed by SHARE president Robert Rosen. He cites the distinctly different nature of mainframe change/feature requests as a textbook case-in-point. In the past, Rosen admits, change and feature requests tended to skew overwhelmingly in the direction of the technically desirable, but not exactly business-critical (much less cost/benefits sensible). That’s changed, however.

“The biggest difference today has been the focus and recognition that computers don’t exist in a vacuum, that they have to bring value to the business, and that, for example, the requests we make to IBM [to make changes] have to have a business case behind them,” Rosen observes. “

I remember we would give requests to IBM that said, ‘Change this bit in the channel program to do this or whatever’ and the [reason] was because it was the technical thing to do, it was technically correct, but it might not have impacted the performance or reliability [of the feature]. Now they’re getting requests to make changes because this is what we need to do in our business. Our folks are recognizing it’s not just about the technology but about increasing business value.”

Rosen thinks there’s an opportunity for mainframe technologists who—like himself—are willing to transition into more business-focused, management-centric roles. Mainframers, in particular, have a solid background in operations management and IT team leadership.

These skills—or, at least, the experience and acumen they’re rooted in—are, to some extent, absent from the distributed world. “I actually started in the mainframe arena and moved into the distributed environment, I was a big VAX guy and ran a VAX data center for a while, before I moved into management and had responsibility for mainframe and distributed [systems],” he explains.

“When I came over here to [the National Institutes of Health] … that mainframe discipline is what I’ve been trying to bring to the environment. People who are running these distributed kinds of environments are hiring mainframe people to bring that discipline to their distributed environments. There’s kind of this alternate career path [where people are asking] ‘How would we apply that [mainframe operations know-how] to our 30 Windows, 25 Linux [servers] that we have?’”

This isn’t necessarily a management role, Rosen cautions—so mainframers shouldn’t be afraid that they’ll be cut off from the technology aspects of their work. “It’s not necessarily management per se. It might be more team leadership. It’s bringing that knowledge over and helping disseminate that knowledge [in a new environment]. That clearly is a career opportunity. I can personally speak to that. It’s becoming more and more important as computers are becoming more and more central to the organization’s business.”

Two-Way Street?

If you can help mainframers come to business, you can—or should—also be able to help business executives come to the mainframe. For this reason, SHARE and IBM have on occasion sponsored executive-oriented technology tracks. The idea, Michael says, is to help business execs understand a bit more about the mainframe, about its technology pedigree, and about why Big Iron—or especially Big Iron—is and will remain a bet-your-business platform.

To date, Michael concedes, there’s been only lukewarm interest from executives, however. “We’ve done some things in the [business executive-oriented] space over time. We had two focused tracks. We had one at SHARE in Boston. We had one at SHARE before Boston where we were delivering a program specifically for the level right below the CIO—basically speaking to the issues that were relevant to the CIO, but expecting that we probably wouldn’t get the CIO, we’d probably get [the person who reports directly to them]. We aren’t running that particular program right now,” he notes.

An ongoing concern for Michael and other SHARE organizers is diversification --ensuring that there’s content enough not only for tech geeks but for management geeks and other, non-tech-obsessed attendees, too. “How do we provide content that’s valuable not only to the techies, but also to the IT managers? As a manager, I go to SHARE and a lot of the sessions I end up attending deal with issues like compliance, SOX for security, at a level that’s relevant for me as an IT manager. How can I learn about these issues?

“[So we have] sessions on SOA. Things like, ‘Where is SOA applicable? How can SOA be used to transform my application and service delivery so that I have different options for meeting my customers’ needs in ways that are more effective?’ That kind of stuff—that’s what I go to SHARE for.”