Image: IBM

Early IBM mainframe systems were introduced in the mid-20th century with the pioneering IBM 360 announced in April of 1964. The mainframe technology has come a long way since its early vacuum tube days. These days, mainframes are integral to modern enterprises around the globe. Although, the platforms face challenges in the years ahead.

On Wednesday, an IBM Systems magazine webinar focused on the evolution of the mainframe over the years and its future. The Infotel Corp.-sponsored event titled “Preparing Enterprise IT for the Next 50 Years of Mainframe” featured speakers who discussed strategies to ensure the future of the platform amid a crucial IT skills shortage and other challenges.

“The mainframe has remained a staple in large enterprises for more than 50 years, but as the technology continues to mature, organizations must find ways to modernize their approach to the next generation of z/OS and the people they employ to manage it,” said Jeff Castella, Infotel Corp. managing director of software in a press release. He referenced the operating system for IBM mainframes.

“We have seen a lot of mainframe changes over the past 40 years and are excited to share what we believe is in store for the platform in the years to come,” Castella said.

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Mainframe systems are an integral component of business operations for enterprises worldwide. According to a Datatrain report, mainframes handle the core business operations for nearly three-quarters of the global Fortune 500. In 2018, enterprises said that 72% of their customer-facing applications were “completely or very reliant on mainframe processing,” according to a Forrester study conducted by Compuware.

However, the mainframe is facing a technological existential crisis of sorts as experienced developers continue to retire in larger numbers. At the same time, there remains difficulty hiring replacements for these IT positions.

From 2013 to 2018, nearly one-quarter (23%) of enterprise mainframe staff retired with 63% of these positions left unfilled, per Forrester. As companies continue to rely on a platform with an increasingly leaner workforce in the years ahead, IBM and others are taking innovative approaches to ensure the future of the mainframe.

During the webinar, speakers discussed leveraging a host of solutions from DevOps and Agile methodologies to tapping automation for expedited application creation. However, IBM is also focused on shoring up discrepancies in the COBOL coder supply chain.

Teaching the next generation of COBOL coders

Earlier this year, IBM in partnership with Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project announced a series of initiatives to spur interest and access to COBOL for new coders. One of the new initiatives of this project included the creation of open-source COBOL training. This platform offers COBOL training to beginners as well as refresher courses to experienced professionals.

This project includes the creation of a “Calling all COBOL Programmers” forum category to connect programmers, developers, and those seeking COBOL skills. Programmers for hire and those looking to volunteer can create profiles illustrating their experience and capabilities.

SEE: Photos: Looking back to the birth of the IBM mainframe (TechRepublic)

Another step to ensuring the future of COBOL coders is making the language more accessible to students. In recent years, a number of universities have dropped COBOL training courses from curricula, opting to instead offer “more exciting and useful” programming languages.

The IBM Z Academic Initiative is a partnership between the company and more than 120 schools around the US designed to spur interest in COBOL. More than 45 of the partnered schools offer dedicated COBOL programming.

Cost-analysis and relieving pressure on developers

A portion of the discussion was dedicated to highlighting past examples of companies failing to effectively migrate from the mainframe. Over the years, many organizations have already made significant investments into these mainframe systems. During the webinar, the consultant Craig S. Mullins reiterated these past investments will incentivize organizations to continue to maintain the health of these platforms.

“It’s got to be that the organization is continuing to embrace and extend the mainframe. And if you do look at it from a cost analysis perspective, most organizations are not going to jettison the mainframe because of the cost to get off of it and the cost that they’ve got sunk into it already,” Mullins said.

SEE: Top 5 programming languages for systems admins to learn (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Mullins also discussed widespread pressure on developer teams to deliver innovative solutions faster, citing a recent Vanson Bourne survey. Per the report, virtually all (95%) of respondent IT teams “said their IT teams are under pressure to adopt modern development practices on the mainframe to accelerate delivery and innovation.”

To accomplish this, about half (52%) of these teams have incorporated DevOps to the mainframe. Additionally, another 42% have utilized Agile methodologies. To deliver faster innovation, Mullins reiterated the capabilities of Agile methodologies compared to waterfall methodologies. By incorporating agile methodologies, developer teams can provide improvements incrementally, explained Mullins.

The future of the platform

After more than 50 years of the mainframe, the future of the platform remains largely unknown. Mullins feels as though organizations will play a significant role in maintaining the health of the platform in the years ahead.

“We can raise the red flags all we want right now and say: ‘You need to start training people. You need to start hiring people.’ But when [organizations] actually start feeling the pain of their systems running into issues is when they may start actually paying enough attention to it and paying enough money to get it done. Hopefully, we can raise enough of the people’s perspective on it right now to start investing before it becomes a disaster,” Mullins said.