Mainframe Madness

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Content Copyright © 2010 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: The Norfolk Punt

Every May, CA goes a little mad about the mainframe. Actually, it’s in good company, as in times when waste can’t be tolerated and everyone is expected to do “more with less”, while doing all they can to “save the planet” at the same time, running a mainframe at 8o% CPU utilisation or more is looking very attractive. Moreover, as people struggle with parallel processing on multicore PC architectures and delight in virtualisation, they are beginning to notice that the mainframe has been doing this sort of stuff for years. IBM is probably most responsible for re-inventing the mainframe (partly because it has some major customers using it, who can’t get the performance and throughput they need on anything else; and partly, I suspect, because its mainframe technology still has a very healthy profit margin). Smaller players like Compuware also have a strong mainframe story around managing the platform effectively, so that you pay IBM as little as possible; and only pay for the resources you actually use.

This is also the story CA has been telling for some time, although it is a very much bigger player than Compuware and itself has had a bit of a poor reputation (in the dim and distant past) with its mainframe customers. However, now the customers I meet seem to like CA and it really is telling the new mainframe story—it even sent me a paperback entitled Mainframe 2.0 (which is a surprisingly interesting read).

As I see it, the CA story is partly a knowledge transfer story, around dealing with the changing demographics of the workforce as the Net generation arrives and the old experts either retire or move into part-time mentoring/coaching roles (since few people outside banking have much confidence in their retirement funds these days) but it is also a tool modernisation story.

The first delivery against this story this May is CA Mainframe Software Manager (MSM) r3.0. We can expect more of the story at or after CA World 2010 but CA MSM now delivers the basic software installation capabilities—InstallShield and Windows Update for the Mainframe. It appears to simplify software management to a great degree, offering a GUI as an alternative to (not replacement for) the traditional green screen interface; which, in turn, reduces the chance of human error during installation. CA claims that installation times are reduced by 87% for experienced staff and 93% for less experienced staffers (with the usual caveats; but this is apparently based on actual OR-style research—I just knew my Operations Research (OR) experience would come back into fashion one day). The similarity of these two figures is interesting—installation isn’t something you do all the time, so even experienced staff benefit from a GUI.

I’d expect the time saved differences between experienced and inexperienced staff to be more extreme for operational activities (which CA will be addressing next) and, for some operational activities, the green screen may well be more effective than the GUI, although probably not for newcomers to the mainframe. Anyway, we shall see. For now, CA MSM r3.0 is available at no additional charge, for any CA mainframe customer with an active support agreement.

CA has also delivered a further instalment of its Mainframe Stack. It is now delivering this on a yearly basis, with software certified for interoperability with the latest CA technologies, the latest release of IBM z/OS and the latest releases of major z/OS subsystems and middleware. Coming down the line later this year is CA Recommended Service (CARS) which aligns with IBM Recommended Service Upgrade (RSU).

So CA is continuing to deliver a unified, managed-risk mainframe software environment that is aware of utilities/infrastructure from IBM and other vendors. Its customers appear to be pleased with what they’re getting with CA MSM and its related initiatives (although, it seems to me that all the mainframe vendors are moving in similar directions):

I used it just a few weeks ago to install CA Endevor Software Change Manager Manager, which in the past has been a fairly complex installation requiring several days to install without doing the configuration. This time the installation took 29 minutes… CA MSM will make it possible for a non-expert to do the work and I can just review it.” (A large US University)

“MSM/Mainframe 2 0 helps CA but more so the industry; this will set the bar for the entire ecosystem.” (A major US-based health insurance provider)

However, although users of the mainframe continue to (in general) like the platform, there is still a lot of misinformation about it and a lot of (often ill-informed) prejudice against the mainframe. When the “death of the mainframe” was first announced some 20 years ago, the illustrations of “cost savings” for distributed platforms often overlooked the extra staff and management tools needed to begin to match the reliability and capacity of the mainframe platform. And, even these days, Dayton Semerjian (Corporate SVP and General Manager for mainframe) of CA claims that the major mainframe champions can do more to trumpet mainframe cost effectiveness stories. Or, at least, he says, could supply more real customer case studies to back up the stories—whereas many of the pro-distributed case study comparisons aren’t really comparing “apples with apples”. That is, they aren’t comparing distributed and mainframe options where each follows appropriate “good practice” and offers similar service levels.

I suspect that there is some truth in this—but that there really are some people who don’t manage the mainframe effectively or who have moved most of their applications off the mainframe and still keep it going for the sake of a few applications which no-one much uses any more. Such people will indeed find the mainframe an expensive option (and, indirectly, provide support for CA’s mainframe management story)—but a properly managed, highly utilised mainframe is still pretty cost effective. If you are interested in the mainframe today, CA’s May Mainframe Madness 2010 is a month long virtual conference and you should probably take a look at it.