Everyone has a story, and not everyone comes to the mainframe environment in exactly the same way. At SHARE Columbus, attendees were blown away by high school student Enzo D'Amato's passion and perseverance in acquiring his own mainframe, which he put together in his parents’ garage. In his session, "So You Just Bought a z114! A Guide for Those Looking to Own a System Z," D'Amato explored his experience of finding and acquiring his own mainframe, as well as setting it up for personal use. We spoke with D'Amato about his experience and what his plans are as he gets ready to apply for college.
Enzo D’Amato with a z114
Passion for Computers Takes Hold
D'Amato's love of video games and a desire to play Minecraft with his sister spurred his interest in learning how computers operate.
"If my introduction to computers was just following along with a set of instructions or a class, I probably wouldn't have gotten interested," he says.
Through the process of learning how to set up a server so he and his sister could play together, he learned to use Linux and the command line. Teaching himself with YouTube videos, he was able to build his own computer and, in fourth grade, D'Amato got his first server. Once videos couldn't fully answer his questions, he turned to official manuals, technical guides, and online articles and other resources to learn what he needed to know. "That's the most important thing, trying it out and doing it yourself," he explains.
D'Amato set his sights on learning how all the components and parts of a computer work together. Once that server was running, he and his whole class at school could play the video game together, too. "It felt amazing, especially because my server was more powerful than I expected," he says.
According to D'Amato, he dove into learning about virtualization, how to install a hypervisor, how to create virtual machines, and how to bridge the elements together through networking. It was a spiral of learning he fell right into as he searched for solutions to each new challenge, from reducing his parents' phone bill through a Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) system to creating a spam filter for his email server.
D'Amato's interest in computers comes from his need to not only solve challenges, but also to achieve and discover new things. His fireman father and his mother, a former social worker, have supported him every step of the way, especially by "paying the power bill," he says.
All joking aside, D'Amato states, "My parents have been nothing but supportive, allowing me to take over the basement and now, the garage, with more and bigger computers over time and running more and more things through the servers." He adds, "My parents have been amazing in that they allow me to experiment and play around with equipment that is not usually suited for the home. They have helped me get the machines into the house and set up the infrastructure necessary to run them."
Four years ago, D'Amato started exploring the old multiple virtual storage (MVS) releases and the Hercules emulator on his own computer. This whet his appetite for more mainframe capacity and exploration, which evolved into a serious search for his own mainframe about two years ago.
The New York Department of Transportation was auctioning off what was basically its entire data center, which consisted of three z114s, a DS8800, a TS7200, and three frames of robotic tape library. The lot itself was far more than what one person would take or could accommodate, and even with D'Amato's advance planning to part out only the components he needed, his parents said the lot would be too much.
"The first machine I found for sale had three mainframes and eight frames of other equipment. Even my parents weren’t on board with that," he said. That first "no," however, propelled him to learn more about the mainframe and its components, which ultimately fueled his search for the right fit.
D'Amato's current mainframe setup is something to be proud of, and his presentation at SHARE Columbus talked about the process of finding, shipping, and setting it up in his parents' garage. Building his own system from one server on a folding table to an entire rack of servers with 10 gig networking and fiber optics is a major achievement.
"One reason I wanted to get my own mainframe is because I wanted to explore the machine on my own, doing with it as I please, without having to worry about the potential impact of my experiments on an entire business," he explains.
The mainframe in his garage has only been operational for about two months and it is running data, but D'Amato says he's far from done playing with the technology. He's had little time to focus on running CICS or other applications. "This is an endless journey," D'Amato explains. He wants to explore the entire mainframe and everything that can be done on the machine, learning how it can be used to solve real-world problems and what can be built to improve how the system operates.
According to D'Amato, learning about the mainframe through self-study has been like cooking, in that you start with a basic recipe that you can add to or modify to make it your own. He also says chemistry is similar to his exploration of the mainframe as school-based experiments can be tweaked to get bigger reactions or different results.
While SHARE Columbus was the first time D'Amato attended a SHARE event, he says, "It won't be the last time." He enjoyed the sessions he attended, from those on containers to ones about cyber security and Assembler. Networking with other technologists was another memorable experience that added to D'Amato's mainframe journey. He's also toured IBM's facilities in Poughkeepsie, New York, and competed in IBM's Master the Mainframe (now IBM Z Xplore) competition.
D’Amato at IBM in Poughkeepsie, NY
Another of his biggest accomplishments, he says, was receiving second place in the New Jersey State Science Fair as a student at Barnstable Academy. His project focused on how much force someone wearing a ballistics vest would experience when shot. As part of that, he used a ballistics sensor, a digital force sensor he built, and an old high-speed camera he repaired to achieve 10,000 frames per second to capture when the bullets hit the vest. All of that data was then cross-referenced with injury data. "When everything works perfectly, it's an adrenaline rush," he says.
D'Amato also was approved to teach an Advanced Placement level computer science course at his school. "It was a thrilling opportunity for me to share my computer science knowledge with other students, and I'm immensely proud of that. It's not something that every kid gets to do," he recalls.
Planning for a Future withthe Mainframe
Looking ahead to college, D'Amato plans to pursue computer science or computer engineering with a minor in cyber security and business. He can't wait to meet other college students who are interested in technology and building out their own machines, as well as learn about the latest systems out there. D'Amato wants to continue expanding his horizons beyond what he's been able to do on his own. "They say, 'You never stop learning,' and I think that's 100% true," he says. He sees college as an opportunity to play more with hardware and learn more about cyber security.
While D'Amato hasn't pinned down his ultimate career goals, he knows he'd be happy working in the mainframe environment. From COBOL development to systems programming or working with a company to develop the next generation of mainframe software or hardware, it's clear that the doors of opportunity are wide open for this technology explorer.
Watch D’Amato’s SHARE Columbus presentation: "So You Just Bought a z114! A Guide for Those Looking to Own a System Z"