Amazon customers are aware that their Echo devices, using the Alexa voice interface, can play their favorite songs, tell them the weather, and find the latest television episodes. Amazon also has Alexa for Business, an enterprise focused service that software providers can use to build Alexa’s skills to work with their applications and help employees be more productive. But could the device be used to communicate with the mainframe? And what’s next on the horizon for Alexa and other smart speakers?
Steve Pryor, chief technology officer at DTS Software, says, “Alexa (or any other voice assistant) is a new tool that may be familiar to a new generation, but perhaps not so much to more seasoned mainframers. As the mainframe continues to be integrated into the cloud, voice-based applications provide another means of access that both new and older programmers should be aware of.”
DTS Software takes this concept one step further in its SHARE Fort Worth presentation “Access Your Mainframe Using Alexa.” Tom Williamson, founder of DTS Software, will demonstrate how Alexa’s TCP/IP interface can connect to z/OS, showing attendees how to set up access to their mainframes through a skill DTS created. Given IBM’s partner status with Amazon Web Services and its involvement in Amazon’s APN Network, it was a logical starting point for accessing the mainframe via voice-activated commands. Pryor adds, “The idea here is to show what’s possible with connecting some new technology into what many CIOs would call old technology, the IBM Z® mainframe.”
The demo will show how DTS Software's mainframe functions can be accessed via Alexa. “We’d love to see what SHARE event attendees (in the IBM Z marketplace) think regarding Alexa’s feasibility in their enterprises,” says Pryor.
Once connected, users can ask Alexa for system and job statuses, SMS information, or to start or stop jobs on the mainframe. Williamson says the app is built to act on a series of four to five words, including “status,” “list,” and “start.” He explains that Alexa can be used to access information through user-written Rexx routines called by the DTS mainframe interface. For example, a user could ask for the status of a particular disk volume, and Alexa would send a request to z/OS. The DTS Software code on the mainframe then invokes a Rexx program to perform the request, before returning the results in Alexa-readable format.
Williamson adds that the Alexa skill connects to multiple mainframes and supports alerts from z/OS. However, for higher level functions, the skill that DTS created would need to be modified, he explains.
Through a simple web interface depicting systems in a typical enterprise, Williamson will demonstrate how Alexa can be used to send requests to z/OS for various tasks (e.g. job status, start/stop jobs, etc.). “Theoretically, you could get information related to SMF records or alerts very easily with this interface,” says Pryor. In another scenario, a systems administrator could more easily multitask with help from Alexa. While in the middle of dealing with one system error, an administrator could gather new information on different system issues by using Alexa’s voice recognition to query z/OS. The administrator can gather new information about other issues while still working on the current support task.
Pryor explains, “This demo will show how Alexa can be leveraged to help system and storage administrators perform certain mainframe tasks, such as obtaining message explanations and job alerts, very simply and quickly.” Ultimately, Williamson and Pryor believe attendees with an interest in alternative ways to access the mainframe could turn to using voice as another way to obtain information, especially from publicly accessible mainframes.
What about Security?
In terms of security, particularly with recent reports of Alexa “listening” in on consumers, Pryor says, “It should be noted that you still need RACF authorization to access the Alexa/mainframe interface. Additionally, Amazon has a good deal of TLS encryption for data transmitted from Alexa to the web interface and enterprise firewall. Once inside your firewall, your normal encryption/authentication protocols would be in place.” The TCP/IP connection from Alexa to the web application should reduce security concerns. “However, passwords, user IDs, and other sensitive information probably should not be spoken to Alexa,” he cautions.
Foster Greater Mainframe Access and Collaboration
One thing SHARE Fort Worth attendees should keep in mind is that the DTS demonstration will focus on how to connect Alexa to z/OS, but mainframers can add their own interfaces to the skill and build whatever voice-activated querying device they need. In the future, the use of Alexa could help DevOps improve communications and collaborations across teams and geographies, but the applications are endless.
DTS Software is very interested in what other users believe Alexa can do in providing mainframe-based information to customers. Pryor says, “We want to make this a collaborative educational session, getting feedback from attendees on how Alexa can help improve communications across the enterprise and accelerate works in progress.” He adds, “We’d like to position this as a part of legacy modernization from a communications perspective. Currently, this is proof of concept and we’re looking for marketplace feedback from SHARE Fort Worth attendees.”
“We understand the constant battle in IT of doing more work with fewer resources, and we’re addressing the problem with new and better solutions to help mainframers keep their heads above water,” says Williamson. Generating conversations with colleagues at SHARE Fort Worth is just one goal of DTS’s demonstration, but providing a tool that can help the ultimate consumer get the data they need from the mainframe in a more accessible and efficient way is everyone’s goal.
Enjoy 500+ technical sessions and hands-on labs on enterprise IT hot topics such as security, mainframe hardware, cloud technology in the enterprise, data privacy, API economy, Zowe and open source, and IBM Z at SHARE Fort Worth. Register today.