The Dinosaur Myth: Mainframe Behemoths Aren't Dead Yet

April 26, 2006

The mainframe, in its fifth decade of existence and long thought to be the old, gray mare of institutional computers, has not died the speedy death most people assumed it would. Far from being dinosaurs, mainframes have proven to be reliable and essential, and they still handle an estimated 70 percent of business data.

 

The unexpected endurance and indispensability of mainframe server technology in big business may have faked out the job market: Experts in the industry and at the W. P. Carey School of Business say a shortage of mainframe-trained technicians looms as the mainframe generation nears retirement after decades in which younger technicians gravitated toward other, sexier, areas of enterprise computing.


"Mainframes have been around a long time," says Michael Goul, an information systems professor at the W. P. Carey School. "They are mature and stable, they handle huge amounts of processing with familiar procedures, people, job skills, etc."

No longer a 'hot' career for techies

A 2005 Enterprise Systems salary survey of 200 mainframe systems administrators showed that average yearly pay was $65,500, second only to $66,500 for Unix administrators; last were non-mainframe Windows server administrators at $58,000.

"Younger people want training on hotter skills -- mainframes are a turnoff for many. They are used as a mainstay of large, maybe historically not so tech-savvy companies -- and the kids want to all work for Google because that's where the excitement and the other young people are working and collaborating," Goul says.

 

"Most schools have dropped training in mainframe essentials because the number of jobs hasn't been at critical mass to bring in sufficient recruiters, etc.," he says. "Students want long-term careers, and they believe the mainframe training might be dead-end, or at least without the career-path options that hotter curriculum seems to promise."

 

Goul says the data indicate that about 28 percent of the estimated 3.4 million IT workers in the United States are involved with mainframes to some degree.

 

"There is no hard data to state exactly how many there are out there," he cautions. "Many IT workers started out working on mainframes, but they may have evolved their skill set to be broader ... they are multi-platform savvy."

 

The fact that about 70 percent of business data resides on mainframes and that 28 percent of IT workers are involved in mainframes is a testament to mainframe efficiency at managing large operational, transaction-oriented databases, Goul says. The ratio also is testament to the relative maturity of the mainframe in contrast to other computing models, he says: "Some would contend Unix and/or Linux clusters are more efficient because you can scale as you grow, whereas when you're out of room with a mainframe, you have to go out and buy the biggest and newest mainframe. But, as a 'big server,' a mainframe can exist within the more distributed model as well."

 

IBM takes the initiative

 

In a recent roundtable meeting at Arizona State University, seven Phoenix-area commercial customers and 12 faculty members met with several IBM representatives, including Donald Resnick, a representative of the IBM Academic Initiative, which fosters coordination between universities' curriculums and IBM's mainframe expertise.

Through such cooperation, IBM can help its own business and encourage a greater supply of mainframe workers for its customers through higher education.

IBM's Resnick says the industry started a move toward decentralized networks -- also known as distributed computing -- in the 1980s, but companies realized they still needed mainframes. He notes that about half the IT workers with mainframe expertise are eligible for retirement.

"Companies expect the traditional level of service provided by the mainframe," Resnick says. "The real reason for the comeback of the mainframe is that customers tried to do a lot with decentralization with smaller and cheaper boxes, and that was a failure."

"The mainframe is important to businesses that require virtuality, reliability and capacity along with flexibility," says the W. P. Carey School's Haluk Demirkan, an assistant professor of information systems. "It is used by many large organizations for data-centric applications, e.g., data warehouses, ERP, CRM. It handles simultaneous access by thousands of users and millions of transactions per minute with the security required by financial, manufacturing and other institutions."

Demirkan says IT advancements led schools to reduce mainframe-oriented courses. Also, he notes, "Setting a full-proved mainframe infrastructure is a very costly and time-consuming process for the schools."

IBM hopes its higher-education efforts, including remote access to mainframe hubs for hands-on experience, will generate 20,000 mainframe-educated graduates by 2010. IBM says teachers at almost 200 campuses have signed up.

"The industry and academia need to accept that mainframe systems will not go away for a long time," Demirkan says. "Companies like IBM and Computer Associates need to show the growing job market and rising career paths for new graduates."

Robert Keim, an associate professor of information systems, says early accounting systems evolved over the decades to today's enterprise systems. "The corporate data is still collected, stored and retrieved through the large-scale heavy-duty computers that have been called 'mainframes.' Controlled by a centralized IT function, these systems usually have higher security, better-tested applications software, and generally large-capacity storage devices."

Keim says the looming generational employment gap can be addressed through a combination of converting old systems to more modern approaches and by training younger professionals to deal with the complexity.

"Not all applications can or should be converted," Keim says. "Also, most of the younger generation will not seek out these jobs and the accompanying training unless they have a financial incentive and career options that will allow them to keep one foot in the new while training and living with the other foot in the historic systems management."

Harvey Shrednick, a faculty associate with W. P. Carey's Center for Advancing Business through Information Technology, says most large companies built legacy application systems 10 to 25 years ago with proprietary in-house or modified off-the-shelf software that required huge investments in mainframe infrastructure. "To replace these large, complex order-processing, billing and accounting systems with newer versions on a different hardware platform would be an expensive undertaking with little, if any, financial or customer benefit," he says.

 

"The older technologists were very content to stay in the secure mainframe environment either maintaining the older operating systems or large-scale applications built on the mainframe hardware platform," Shrednick says of the IT employment gap. "As newer IT people have entered the field over the past 10 to15 years, they have shown more interest in pursuing technical skills in areas requiring the use of Microsoft tools or Web development. Therefore, as the older generation is retiring, their skill set is not easily replaceable, causing a significant challenge for large legacy-systems companies to fill the gap."

Re-introducing mainframe curriculum

The outcome of the recent meeting at ASU was that faculty suggested IBM consider modularizing the mainframe curriculum they offer so that it can be included in the emerging course structures surrounding enterprise computing, integration and service-oriented architectures, Goul says, citing the notion of "reusable learning objects" that many industry and/or academic partnerships are producing.IBM's Resnick says the industry started a move toward decentralized networks -- also known as distributed computing -- in the 1980s, but companies realized they still needed mainframes. He notes that about half the IT workers with mainframe expertise are eligible for retirement.

"IBM's newest mainframes are very impressive, and coupled with their database applications, they are certainly serving as the shop floor for transaction processing in a vast number of modern global organizations," Goul says. "The give-and-take in the recent meeting was to help IBM's academic initiative leaders learn how the business information systems department traditionally develops curriculum and programs, and the IBMers imparted detailed information on the need for mainframe skills to be taught in the curriculum."

Says IBM's Resnick: "IBM and the companies that use mainframes in the Phoenix area look forward to ASU providing students with enterprise computing -- IBM mainframe -- knowledge."

Bottom line:

  • Far from being dinosaurs, mainframe computers have proven to be reliable and essential, and they still handle an estimated 70 percent of business data.
  • Experts in the industry and at the W. P. Carey School of Business say a shortage of mainframe-trained technicians looms as the mainframe generation nears retirement after decades in which younger technicians gravitated toward newer areas of enterprise computing.
  • Companies continue to expect the traditional level of service provided by the mainframe. Experts believe the real reason for renewed interest in the mainframe is that customers tried -- and failed -- to operate using smaller and cheaper machines.

  • Through the IBM Academic Initiative, IBM and companies that use mainframes in the Phoenix area look forward to ASU providing technology students with IBM mainframe knowledge.


The same could be said for the baby-boomer generation of enterprise-computing technicians who know mainframe technology. But for every two mainframe-savvy technicians approaching retirement, there is only one new mainframe hire trained and ready to take their place, Goul says.