“Walker, your treads are
the path and nothing more;
walker, there is no path,
the path is made when walking.”

Seven years ago, I had little idea of what life would hold for me or my professional future. Back then, I was self-assured 19 year-old Computer Whiz working as a Systems Administrator and taking vocational training in C programming and Oracle database administration. I thought that I knew everything about computers, and I planned to begin a degree program in Computer Engineering in anticipation of moving on to bigger and better things.

I discovered how surprising life can be when IBM offered me the chance to take a quick three-week boot camp in something completely new: the IBM System z Mainframe. At that point, I really didn’t know anything about mainframes, but like any good technology geek, I couldn’t pass up the chance to learn something new. During the first week, I intensively studied Job Control Language (JCL) and started to learn about topics like batch processing.  During the second week, I began to learn about various critical aspects of z/OS systems, including storage, operations, ISPF, SDSF, and JES2.  During the third week…

Well, I didn’t actually get a third week, as three of the trainees in the bootcamp were then pulled aside and selected to interview with IBM for employment as a Computer Operator.

Two were selected (I was one of them ).

On my first day as an IBMer, I learned that I had a choice between two open positions. One position would allow me to learn batch and the systems administration of UNIX systems, and the other would allow me to focus on administering z/OS systems among large mainframe clients, which were mostly banks.

It’s not very difficult to discover what my choice was.

Despite the fact that I had only just begun my IT education, IBM gave me a great opportunity to enter in the vast and incredible environment of the Mainframes.

Over the next months, I was definitely the newbie on the mainframe team, but I gradually learned the various components of the System z mainframe while picking up the mainframe mentality. Despite previously having minimal knowledge about mainframes, I discovered many of amazing attributes of IBM System z, including:

  • The mainframe’s traditional ISPF interface (“Intuitive and Simple Panel Facility”).
  • The orders, operations and monitors (such as SDSF) that allowed me to easily track the progress of processes and control the actions of the system.
  • The clear messages in the mainframe’s JOBLOG & SYSLOG and good documentation that helped me understand what was going on.  I actually continue to think that IBM has the best documentation of any IT vendor.

These experiences led me to realize that I really wanted to become a Mainframe Systems Programmer and resulted in where I am today.

If I had to offer advice to a young IT student thinking about mainframes, I would suggest the following:

  • Read the free IBM Redbook Intro to the New Mainframe: z/OS Basics where you can learn the core concepts of mainframes and Enterprise Computing.
  • Enroll the Master the Mainframe Contest where you can get hands-on experience working in a mainframe environment.  Although this program started in the United States, it is now expanding to Europe, India, China, Brazil, and many other countries.
  • Follow the IBM Academic Initiative, which is working hard to promote mainframe education worldwide.

There are way more opportunities available to learn the mainframe now than when I took my IBM Mainframe boot camp seven years ago, but I think that, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you learn. Who knows?  Maybe this could turn into your “big break” like it did with me.  

I hope you enjoyed my insights as a young Millennial Mainframer and don’t miss my next article!  If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to comment below. You can follow me on Twitter at @Guirix and join my ongoing discussion on Cloud Computing on the Mainframe at Cloud Mainframe Computing!

About the Author 

Álvaro Guirao López.

MBA Entrepreneurship (In Progress), Innovation & Entrepreneurship Business School
B.S in Computer Engineering, King Juan Carlos University.

Álvaro entered the Mainframe world when he starting working as a System z Computer Operator at only 19 years old. Over his career, he has learned the great capacities of mainframe hardware and software while promoting up the mainframe systems programming ranks in the banking sector. Álvaro currently runs a consultancy dedicated to helping various clients throughout Spain in the areas of mainframe technologies and systems programming

One of the more unique aspects of being a Millennial Mainframer is working on teams with coworkers far older than ourselves.  While this generational gap impacts day-to-day life in a mainframe shop in meaningful and significant ways, our older coworkers, contrary to popular belief, were at one time themselves young IT professionals learning the mainframe platform.  I was reminded of this fact during IBM’s Pulse Conference when one of the speakers saw a group of Millennial Mainframers sitting together and commented that he felt “like he was back at an IT shop in the 1970s.”  In that light, it is quite useful for us to consider our elders’ experiences as young mainframers and perspective regarding the evolution of the mainframe platform.  Of course, many of the Baby Boomers grew up with the maxim “never trust anyone over 30,” meaning that we need to need to take their thoughts and advice with a healthy dose of youthful skepticism.

In 1964 (the very same year that Jack Weinberger penned the aforementioned Boomer maxim in the San Francisco Chronicle), a Italian-American college student studying Electrical Engineering in New York state began to get nagged by his mother.  While this student dreamed about moving west (out californee way), his mother wanted him to think about something more practical, like an IBM co-op program in the Hudson Valley.  After much gnashing of teeth, this student relented, which gave him the opportunity to work on the ferrite cores of the System 360 (the original predecessor to the System z mainframe).  Rather than experience the Haight or the counter-culture of the 1960s, this “magna summa cum nada” student (named Nick Donofrio) began a 44 year IBM career that brought him into “the primordial ooze” of mainframe computing.

In the following 40 minute talk to younger IBMers during the announcement of the zEnterprise, Nick Donofrio recounts his views of the past, present, and future of mainframe computing.  Despite having a length longer than the 30 second attention span of the average Millennial, this speech is worth a listen, as it is the best message I have ever heard for communicating the unique value of mainframe computing.  So fasten your seatbelts and hit play.  Heck, as a millennial, you’re a master multi-tasker anyways, so feel free to fire up DrawSomething on your favorite iOS or Android Device while devoting your ears to Nick Donofrio.

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel blessed?  Did Nick inspire you?  Do you want five honorary doctorate degrees?  Do you agree with his thoughts on the mainframe?  How do you plan to build on the mainframe’s legacy?  Let’s hear you in the comments!

Posted in IBM.

I can pull up by the curb,
I can make it on the road,
Goin’ mobile
I can stop in any street
And talk with people that we meet
Goin’ mobile
Keep me moving…

Apologies to The Who, but I just couldn’t resist. Computing horsepower is at our fingertips these days – whether we’re at the curb, on the road, at home, while talking to “people that we meet”, etc. Last week I finally joined the ranks of the iPhone users. Mine has 32GB of storage – more space than the entire DASD farm of my first IBM customer. It’s rather staggering to see the horsepower available to mobile users in comparison to the computing capability that some of us worked with back in “the good ol’ days”.

But what does this have to do with mainframes, other than to trigger the “Back in my day…” reminiscing? A lot, actually. All of this circles around computing architectures, including thin vs. fat clients, centralized vs. decentralized computing, and ultimately into the cloud.

First, some background on where we are and where we’ve come from.

According to a recent Gartner Group survey, mobile computing is the second highest tech priority for CIOs. “BYOD” is the watch word in corporate IT now…and is garnering much concern from IT management that must protect and secure the assets in the enterprise. It’s a very similar picture to the early 90s when “client/server” technology was pushed from the ground level by PC users who began downloading corporate data to their desktops and building innovative new applications that used technology in new ways.

After the client/server boom exposed flaws in pulling all this data down to workstations & servers, another paradigm shift began – to “thin clients”. Smartphones, tablets and other “pervasive” devices are computers with little or no local storage but with fairly significant compute capacity. IBM dabbled with this concept of the thin client in the mid/late ’90s with the “Network Station“…a diskless workstation that required an external monitor, no hard disk, and ran a JVM only. Applications were to be downloaded from the server side and executed on the workstation, but some apps could be pre-loaded. It was a very early cloud computing implementation but didn’t go too far because of limitations in JVM technology, applets and a huge lack of network bandwidth. Today’s thin clients are mobile devices, but the capability that is now built into the average smartphone or tablet dwarfs that of the old Network Station…hardly “thin.”

Now users are finding new ways to use existing data and applications on their mobile phones – the New Thin Client – and are demanding that corporations support these new mobile devices. Always on, everywhere on…it’s being referred to as “Generation C” (for “Connected”). It’s a technology boom that again is being driven by the empowerment of the end user to drive the technology/IT experience, rather than being driven from the IT department downhill.

But even though the users are empowered with this new technology, we still have this problem of applications and data that resides on “the mother ship” that must be accessed from this New Thin Client. And in our case, that “server side” is the mainframe.

In the mobile/mainframe context, I’m tempted to immediately mention support for 3270 terminal emulation on mobile devices, but that’s really not where the action is. The more intriguing question is: how can we leverage the mobile platform and interfaces not just to expose applications (3270 or otherwise) and data, but how can we modernize and simplify? There are a number of approaches to integrating mobile computing platforms with mainframe data and applications, and much of this technology is based on what IBM has been building into the System z software portfolio for years. It revolves largely around support for integration with z/OS subsystems such as CICS, IMS and DB2 and on access to virtualized servers running on Linux under z/VM – all technologies that have been in place for a number of years.

So how might a company use a mobile platform to take advantage of the resources on the mainframe? Let’s start by looking at the user interface – the mobile device itself.

The “app marketplace” has become a cottage industry for software development. Apps on iOS, Android, and even (coming soon) Microsoft’s Metro interface have re-ignited the world of fat client applications (if you consider any mobile device to be “fat”!). Developer tools such as Apple’s Xcode IDE, Eclipse and Android’s plethora of open source tools have made it far easier to build these interfaces, and with the pending acquisition of Worklight, IBM now moves into a much stronger position as a “platform agnostic” provider of mobile development tools. And beyond the single-purpose business-aligned apps there are a new breed of general-purpose business apps such as Cognos Mobile, which can be used to access Cognos data/reports that might be generated from Cognos data residing on System z.

If the mobile device application is designed as a true “thin client”, with little/no logic residing on the device, then there is little difference between a browser app on a PC and a browser app on the Smartphone. And for years we’ve been writing apps that run on back-end web application servers that, in turn, invoke transactions or pull data from mainframe systems. But there are a couple of twists here with respect to the user interface. Until recently, mobile browsers were pretty low-functioning, could not support the modern functions of Javascript and related APIs, and the screen real estate was too small to use effectively. With the advent of mobile Safari, Chrome and others, rendering a standard web page on a mobile is pretty easy. However, there are still some pretty significant usability and viewing considerations for a browser app that runs on a 3″ handheld screen vs. a 10″ tablet vs. a 27″ iMac. So UI design is critical, even for browsers. A key emerging technology for building thin-client browser apps for mobile is HTML 5. Some companies have moved from the app model to HTML 5 implementations – the Kindle Cloud Reader and the Financial Times apps have now moved into the browser, and their function is basically indiscernable from a “real” app.

On the mainframe/server side, there are a couple of key technologies to enable data/transaction access by mobile devices. Existing applications can be “mobile-enabled” by exposing their functionality as services. The data and transactions must be exposed for access by standardized APIs. Web Services and REST technologies can be used to access IMS, CICS and DB2 on the mainframe. For example, there is a great sample of how to build an iPhone browser application that can access CICS transaction data and integrates with Google Maps on the mobile device. CICS Web Services is used to call an existing CICS application from a “Rich UI” application developed using Rational and WebSphere tools. A similar application model could be used to access IMS transactions or even DB2 data on existing mainframe systems. A very nice Redbook on the topic of using z/OS-based technologies with mobile devices is “System z On The Go – Accessing z/OS from Smartphones“. It contains a lot of details on how to use several z/OS-centric technologies with mobile devices.

New and rewritten applications on System z should be designed with service usability in mind. Service-Oriented Architecture design principles are key to providing interfaces that a modern UI developer can access easily. Data design is key to easy access via relational queries or new business intelligence and analytics tools. Again, I’m particularly intrigued by the possibilities in using Cognos Mobile to access mainframe-hosted data. Other such technologies, such as IMS, Adabas and IDMS provide relational access paths that can also open those repositories to mobile data tools.

You’ll notice that I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about specific mainframe integration technologies. That’s because little has changed between the mobile and the “traditional” mainframe integration/enablement that we’ve been doing for years now. Mobile is a UI-layer technology that does little at a technology level to impact System z. Like the browser enablement of the last decade or so, mobile UI enablement will further boost the demand for integration at the back end and will drive even more demand for System z transaction and data resources as users discover how easy it is to access information. If you need information on how to approach mainframe integration, check out an IBM Redbook that I co-authored a few years ago: SOA Transition Scenarios for the z/OS Platform. In that book, we describe many of the service integration and enablement technologies that would be needed to expose mainframe applications and data for access by a mobile device.

Oh, and if you insist on going mobile with 3270, there is a way.

But the key point is: mobile technology is NOT a matter of shifting FROM mainframe applications to mobile applications – it’s about shifting the user interface of mainframe applications to one that is friendly to mobile or browsers or whatever the Next Big Thing is in user interface design.

Posted in IBM.