IT Management

Mainframes have been reinvigorated by companies such as oracle partnering with IBM to run multiple databases on IBM System z mainframes using Linux virtual machines. But this is creating a staffing crisis in enterprise IT. Cross-platform DBAs and systems administrators who can manage distributed and mainframe database environments are becoming scarcer, and not enough new professionals are being trained to fill the gap. However, there are some ways IT organizations can plan for this challenge and minimize its impact. 

IBM unveiled its System 360 more than 40 years ago and it has since been witness to several IT evolutions: first, client/server; then n-tier environments, but the evolution is coming full circle. Increasingly reliant on Linux to assist in reducing costs and developing Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) strategies, businesses are seeking the computing power and centralization that enable them to achieve a greater return on their technology investments. for IT organizations, the ability to run multiple databases in Linux on System z address spaces provides power, reliability, and efficiency that offer another key economic benefit: It scales easily and lets businesses continue to run their database or applications of choice without requiring a major sea change.

The Skills Shortage Challenge

Dr. Walter E. Williams, a George Mason University economist, had as a core of his Ph.D. microeconomics theory course the premise that scarcity is the key to understanding both supply and demand. This premise can be applied to today’s business IT environment. Businesses require more computing power, greater speeds, ease of scalability, more storage, and staffing resources whose skills can be continually stretched. For businesses, these requirements represent what Williams calls “wants.” However, the ability to satisfy these wants is limited by both budget constraints and the extent to which science enables their achievement. There’s a finite amount of any of the above resources (supply), and the value of each often has to be rationalized in favor of another to meet customer needs (demand).

Over the past decade, many organizations have invested in massive networks based on servers and PCs, which required more staff. Adoption of Linux on the mainframe means a different mindset for these organizations and even more cost rationalization. Among these rationalizations are the productivity costs delivered by existing staff and the need to maximize the value of senior staff, many of whom have mainframe database management backgrounds.

This bodes well for multi-platform professionals, particularly cross-platform DBAs and systems administrators who can manage databases in both distributed and mainframe environments. Because mainframe DBAs possess a skillset that’s relatively scarce, the value of these skills should continue to increase. Outside the efforts of the IBM mainframe education initiative, there’s limited focus on training mainframe professionals Therefore, the ability to manage DB2 on z/OS subsystems and other databases in z/Linux address spaces is a great asset to any shop.

This evolution of IT architecture requires fundamental changes in the way skills are distributed across the IT organization. Traditionally, skills in the IT space have been vertically focused. DBAs or developers have been encouraged to “go deep” in a particular vertical technical area (e.g., IBM mainframe database skills) so they can resolve complex technical issues arising over the course of normal business operations. This approach is effective in an n-tier environment because the different components of the organization remain distinct, and these components can be managed using skills in a particular specialized vertical. As the distinction between tiers blurs, however, this practitioner specialization becomes insufficient when managing a complex, interrelated IT environment.

Cross-training across the broader IT organization isn’t necessarily a viable option. Attempting to turn DBAs into IT generalists (for example, adding network administration as a secondary focus) is unlikely to work. Likewise, cultivating database management skills in application developers isn’t realistic. The skills aren’t readily transferable, and the costs of developing those skills are significant.

For many organizations, the best alternative is to identify the job-specific (as opposed to platform-specific) skills that are transferable to other technologies in the same generalized technical vertical. Given the right toolset, a DBA who has focused his efforts and education in the Oracle space should be able to apply that experience and skillset toward the administration of other Relational Database Management System (RDBMS) platforms, whether it’s IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL Server, or MySQL. This represents a broadening of a specialized skillset. Typically, those with mainframe DBMS experience have found the transition to distributed databases less daunting than those attempting to manage the mainframe for the first time after years of distributed database management. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a toolset that serves as a panacea for managing the complete realm of issues associated with multiple DBMS systems, nor that any toolset is without its own issues. To be sure, DBAs deal with challenges associated both with DBMS management and toolset management on a daily basis; that reality won’t likely disappear tomorrow.

For DBAs, this shift can be profound because they’ve had the greatest tendency toward “going it alone” in their area of expertise, and there’s often some reluctance to step outside their comfort zone. Traditionally, they managed all aspects of their database environment and focused on maintaining a homogeneous architecture, minimizing the number of different database platforms. Increasingly, however, the databases used to power the applications are being determined by the vendor, which means DBAs are being asked to maintain multiple DBMS products, with different syntaxes, performance benchmarks, and behavior. The result is a more complex database management environment, and a much greater need for simplified administration and automation.

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