Computer science and other technological disciplines often focus on the latest trends (e.g. the hybrid cloud, augmented reality) and application development programs, but many students stumble upon mainframe technology in their careers as well. College curriculums often leave one of the most relied upon platforms — the IBM Z mainframe — invisible to the average student.
Creating a curriculum and materials to make the mainframe visible to students is just one of the reasons behind Dr. Cameron Seay, Reg Harbeck, Karl-Erik Stenfors, and David Boyes' “Introduction to Enterprise Systems” textbook. In our interview with the authors, we'll explore some mainframe misconceptions, how history informs the future, and the importance of mainframe culture in the development of new programs.
Grow the Seed
IBM Champion Dr. Seay, adjunct professor at East Carolina University, says he and Harbeck, IBM Champion and chief strategist with Mainframe Analytics Ltd., have kicked around the idea of a textbook for several years, and they wanted it to include the history of the mainframe and the philosophy of the technology. "You cannot understand why we are still using an architecture that is 60 years old unless you understand why and how it was created, and the circumstances of that creation and its evolution," he explains.
Harbeck says that Dr. Seay is one of his personal heroes, and he's had the good fortune to collaborate with him before on other projects. This textbook allowed them to draw on their backgrounds and reach out to a new generation of mainframers. "Among many other motivators is that I love communicating about the mainframe to larger and wider audiences, so this represented an opportunity to broaden my audience," Harbeck adds.
After Dr. Seay sought collaborators through The Open Mainframe Project, IBM Champion Stenfors, part-time instructor at ESGI, says he was excited to jump on board because he's seen firsthand that there is a growing need for new technologists working in mainframe. "Having written numerous IBM Redbooks over the years, I thought I would qualify for this adventure," he adds. It also doesn't hurt that he spent 26 years at IBM and gained quite a bit of career experience.
"Dr. Seay is one of the most vocal proponents of getting students into good-paying jobs that are going to have a future,” Boyes, president and chief technology officer at Sine Nominate Associates, says. “Harbeck is one of the more prolific writers on mainframe integration topics, and Stenfors provides a viewpoint outside the U.S.-centric world of IT that we must consider in discussing enterprise architecture and the future of the platform." He adds that his approach was a little different. "To a great extent for me, the goal was to educate students on the concept of composed systems working together as a basic design principle for successful infrastructure," Boyes explains. "One of the things that is not taught today in computer science or business curriculums is the concept of systems analysis: understanding how an ecosystem of systems and applications interact to deliver a reliable solution."
Mainframe Has a Platform and a Culture
Stenfors explains that there is more to the mainframe than being a platform. "There is a whole culture surrounding it that people, including managers, need to appreciate in order to understand the role of the mainframe today — and to debunk all the rumors of it 'going away,'" he says.
Harbeck agrees that the mainframe is more than a system. "Over a hundred years from now — when computing becomes a profession like accounting, engineering, law, and medicine — the lessons learned on the mainframe, and already abstracted into many forms such as IT Infrastructure Library, will become required for true computing professionals who will understand how it all fits together on the IBM mainframe platform." Boyes adds, "It's important to understand that the evolution of any concept or idea is gradual, and we reinvent the wheel a dozen times until we decide its 'good enough, for now.'"
Harbeck takes that a step further. "IBM System/360 is such an appropriate name for the system that really was like inventing the wheel in terms of business computing," he says. "The principles that went into its design, operation, and application became the basic requirements for true world-class computing, and yet no other platform adopted all of them as completely as the IBM mainframe always has. So, not only has every other computing platform invented since its inception failed to reinvent the System/360 wheel, they haven't really even tried because only the singular ne plus ultra platform could justify the costs based on the benefits that ensued for the largest organizations on earth."
According to Harbeck, "There is no platform 'waiting in the wings' to replace what the mainframe does, not only best, but definitively. The others will change, grow, sometimes improve, and sometimes settle into their commodity niches, but the System/360-descendants will continue to be the systems of record, likely for centuries to come." Failing to realize this and making poor business decisions because of that knowledge gap, he says, "is really a form of malpractice, and its high time we all try to disabuse the world of computing and IT decision-making of that failing."
The textbook aims to provide that origin story that, according to Boyes, helps "people understand the underlying structure of what a solution does — what problem does it solve? What have you tried? How did it turn out? What did you do to fix it?" He points out, "The history of the mainframe allows us to level-set that base of what comes next. We know where we've been, and we know what things caused us to bang our heads on the floor — let's avoid that next time."
Ultimately, Boyes says, "That kind of knowledge prevents an enormous amount of thrashing around in stuff that ultimately proved not so useful."
5 Basic Tenets of Mainframes
- It will not go away anytime soon
- It is leading technology (i.e. the latest z16 platform was announced April 2022)
- It supports all the old, plus all the most modern application/server deployments; this technology is current
- It is the most securable platform today
- Scales to extreme capacities vertically, which requires less floor space and fewer resources
To that list, Boyes adds that the platform has limited utility as a single solution for applications, but says that the workload mix is changing and the future will look different. However, he explains that enterprises will want to "play nice" in the context of the whole solution to achieve the best results. He also points out that high-performance TCP/IP support has been critical to the mainframe and the whole enterprise mix.
According to Harbeck, the mainframe's importance is rooted in its history as a platform that incorporates "the best philosophy, business, science, and technology of the past, and the one that holds the keys to the future of global business computing." He adds that how the mainframe became today's system of record and part of tomorrow's IT "should be required knowledge for anyone who considers themselves to be a true IT professional."
- Mainframe is obsolete with outdated technology and programming models
- Mainframe use is on the decline and is being replaced by modern technology
- Mainframe's COBOL is being replaced by other languages
- Mainframe is not "my problem"
- Mainframe is boring
"Few are aware that the global economy runs on a mainframe, and lives mostly in COBOL programs and DB2 databases," Dr. Seay points out. In fact, Harbeck notes that some of the largest organizations across the globe use mainframes for their most critical and challenging business workloads. To say that the mainframe is obsolete, he adds, is like saying the wheel is antiquated. With each new platform launch from IBM, Harbeck says the platform improves upon its own efficiencies to address the latest needs of enterprises and their workloads. "Just focusing on the latest sizzle or challenge to Moore's Law is worse than uni-dimensional, it's a distraction from required quality," he states.
According to Harbeck, the idea that the mainframe is not "my problem" is irresponsible. "We are all responsible for having a properly informed attitude about the mainframe so we can support the right people, workloads, and investment on the greatest computing platform in history. That's important to know, because any time someone makes a throwaway comment disparaging the mainframe, they're actually doing tangible harm to the world of IT and even the world economy." He also says that mainframers are far from boring, noting that attending events at SHARE or listening to mainframers' podcasts, among other things, is one easy way to debunk that myth.
Boyes, on the other hand, says he's not sure that these misconceptions can be changed or that the wrongs in the industry can be corrected. However, he explains that the textbook does "emphasize that there are critical components and technologies that are useful across the board, and that it doesn’t make business sense to ignore the combination of z/OS and the Z hardware because you haven't been introduced to it or don't understand how it works. There's a lot of cool stuff under the hood — look and see."
The mainframe and z/OS do not exist in a vacuum either, he explains. "The Z platform is more than just one workload mix. Virtualization and z/VM, the rise of Linux and open-source workloads, and the fantastic technology of the z16 processor make an interesting case for having this technology in the mix completely on their own. Yes, there are lots of reasons why z/OS is interesting, but it's not — and never will be — the answer for everything," says Boyes.
Boyes does, however, point out that many of the issues with security, information management, and data storage were solved decades ago with z/OS and its precursors, and there are some services that the platform provides better than the best alternative solutions on the market. "No platform exists on its own today," he explains. "Right tool, right job — put the work where it works best. It makes no difference what's on the cover of the airline magazines or who gets on the cover. If it isn't broken, don't fix it."
Into the Mainframe Future
Students in technology are the future of enterprises and advancements in platform performance. According to Dr. Seay, "The industry needs to be aware that the average college student knows nothing about the mainframe and cares even less about it." He says part of the problem is that they have not been told about it, which is why a textbook is so important. "When you explain to a student — just stating the facts and void of any salesmanship — what this technology is and what it does, they 'get it' and now have a clearer understanding of how the global technology infrastructure works."
Harbeck hopes that those who engage with the book will become part of the mainframe's continued journey into the future. "Our primary goal was to communicate a big picture and also a detailed picture with compelling integrity and informativeness to help form a new generation of mainframe-relevant business technologists," he adds. "Besides, mainframers are the coolest nerds ever."
Boyes also points out, "We're not done yet," with more volumes to come. But most importantly, this maintains not only a sense of the relevance of mainframe processing, but also demonstrates how new is not necessarily better. "We can't just chuck what exists and build everything on the latest, shiny, new thing; applications contain a lot of embedded knowledge of how businesses and business processes work, and that information is critical to maintaining a successful IT infrastructure."
With “Introduction to Enterprise Systems,” technologists in today's enterprises will have the background knowledge they need to ensure the applications and systems of the future utilize the best parts of the past to catapult systems — and business — into the future.