Mainframe’s Future: IBM to Focus on Ease of Use

IBM is putting its money where its mouth is—spending $100 million over the next five years to make its mainframe systems easier to use

When it comes to future of Big Iron, IBM Corp. is putting its money where its mouth is. Last week Big Blue announced plans to spend $100 million over the next five years to make its mainframe systems easier to use.

The idea, officials say, is to make it easier for mainframe operators and systems programmers to maintain and code for Big Iron systems—in part by automating the development and deployment of mainframe applications.

Big Blue’s $100 million push is cross-company, involving System z hardware and software specialists and experts from IBM’s Tivoli, WebSphere, and Rational software groups.

IBM officials outlined the initiative in conjunction with the announcement of z/OS V1R8, which they say ships with a raft of management- and programmer-friendly enhancements, including a new IBM Health Checker for z/OS, an integrated OMEGAMON z/OS Management Console, an improved Hardware Configuration Manager (HCM), a revamped version of IBM Configuration Assistant for z/OS Communications Server, and the z/OS Basic Skills Information Center—a resource designed expressly for IT pros who are new to Big Iron.

Just Like Old Times

Big Blue’s announcement has some industry watchers saying it feels like … 1979.

“Maybe ‘old times’ is the operative term here,” notes Charles King, a principal with Pund-IT Inc. “What’s interesting to me is that IBM is really the only tier-1 vendor with this kind of challenge. Neither Sun nor HP has any platform with similar history or legacy support. IBM has continually updated mainframe technology to keep it current with emerging market trends, from the company’s leveraging of Linux partitions to its newer zAAP and zIIP specialty co-processors.”

To the extent that IBM’s new z/OS enhancements help recast the mainframe as a more user- and developer-friendly play, they’re of a piece with zAAP, zIIP, and other initiatives, King says. Take the new Health Checker for z/OS, which IBM officials describe as a kind of “personal trainer” that actively monitors z/OS system performance and recommends configuration tune-ups that can improve resilience, security, and performance.

Meanwhile, the new OMEGAMON z/OS Management Console (which IBM acquired 30 months ago from the former Candle Corp.) gets a usability overhaul, thanks to a modern GUI-based facelift. It can also interoperate with the Health Checker for z/OS to automate, eliminate, and simplify management tasks.

On top of this, IBM continues to enhance OMEGAMON itself, says Tivoli software director Zarina Stanford. The idea is to make it an even more useful—and usable—tool for mainframe management.

“We are extending out a family, what we refer to as the OMEGAMON 4.1 family. First and foremost, through a product called dynamic workspace linking, we’re allowing for the dynamic discovery of errors and for connecting [errors] back to a CICS application or to a specific DB2 [instance] that they connect to,” Stanford explains. “The second thing that was done for this release was extending our globalization support. Previously they have been double-byte-enabled, and we are extending the support for that in nine different languages.”

Stanford says IBM will also continue to improve the OMEGAMON z/OS Management Console in future versions of z/OS.

Similarly, the revamped HCM ships with new configuration wizards, new support for the import and export of I/O Definition Files, and integrated access to RMF Monitor III reports. The IBM Configuration Assistant for z/OS Communications Server—introduced as part of z/OS R1.7 as the “z/OS Network Security Configuration Assistant”—provides a guided setup for z/OS network features.

Finally, Big Blue announced the z/OS Basic Skills Information Center, a Web resource designed for IT pros new to the mainframe and z/OS.

The Right Focus

Pund-IT’s King—an industry veteran, and a long-time mainframe booster—says he’s encouraged by IBM’s $100 million push.

“This new effort is more culturally-focused in that it aims to alter conventional mainframe development tools and environments to make them friendlier to contemporary application developers and IT staff,” he observes. “Overall, this is a smart move and fits in with mainframe education efforts IBM sponsors at a number of universities. By making these investments, IBM is helping to ensure that the mainframe will be relevant to future generations of IT professionals and remain a vital IT resource to thousands of IBM customers.”

The irony, King and other industry-watchers say, is that while IBM’s new effort is designed to help close the gap between Big Iron and distributed systems on the usability and ease-of-programmability front, the mainframe maintains a huge lead in other key areas.

Consider a recent report (entitled “Mainframe Role TCO”) from The Robert Frances Group. The consultancy said, "IT executives should consider the value of the 20-year advantage that mainframes have over other platforms” and notes the Big Blue’s ongoing investments in the mainframe "will ensure technology superiority for the foreseeable future."

In addition to performance, reliability, and security, Robert Frances researchers cite several additional mainframe positives—including power and cooling advantages over power-hungry and real estate-intensive commodity servers. “IT executives and their staff should consider the mainframe as a 'Tier 1' option for hosting new applications and acting as a central hub for security, server pool management, and consolidated workloads/data,” the researchers write.