IT Management

Despite what feels like endless recessionary gloom and black economic forecasts, the IT industry remains relatively buoyant and continues to attract investment. The good news is that a fairly significant proportion of the worldwide IT spend is directed at the mainframe platform, showing that the benefits of the System z remain attractive to those attempting to consolidate large data resources and reduce expenditure without sacrificing performance and reliability.

The latest Arcati User Survey (part of the 2012 Mainframe Yearbook, which can be downloaded at puts that continuing investment into some kind of context. This year’s 100 respondents were drawn from a broad range of organizations across the globe (50 percent North America, 40 percent Europe), representing the usual split of business sectors (IT 22 percent, banking 16 percent, retail 14 percent, and so on). Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they were experiencing some MIPS growth, mostly around 10 percent per year; a very small proportion reported growth over 25 percent and, conversely, 12 percent noted a decline in mainframe capacity.

As always in our annual research, the picture varies considerably, depending on the size of installation. At the top end, above 10,000 installed MIPS, the vast majority of respondents reported capacity growth of up to 10 percent per year; while among the smallest sites, nearly half reported no growth or a decline in MIPS. In the middle, the picture was more varied. So once again, the larger and more mature mainframe users show the highest level of commitment to the System z, while smaller sites are most vulnerable to erosion through consolidation or migration to other platforms. This trend is hardly surprising—the perceived scarcity of mainframe skills and the ubiquitous nature of Windows and Linux apps make the mainframe a far harder sell lower down the market, one that even the attractively priced z114 and hybrid technologies will find hard to counter.

For those committed to a long-term mainframe strategy, the System z appears to be playing a very active role in supporting new technologies. Sixty-four percent of this year’s respondents said their mainframe systems participate in Web services and 40 percent indicated they’re running Java-based applications on the mainframe, while an impressive 78 percent said they’re Web-enabling their CICS systems. By contrast, though, only 12 percent said they were using their mainframe for cloud computing, with 18 percent reporting that some mainframe applications would be cloud-enabled in the future.

Overall satisfaction with the System z remains high, and cost comparisons with other platforms are as favorable as ever. Management resistance continues to be an issue, however, and for the first time since this survey began in 2006, users reported that more data was stored on distributed platforms than on the mainframe (56 percent vs. 44 percent). This suggests the role of the System z as the central data server of choice may finally be under threat.

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

One of the most frequently voiced management concerns about future investment in the mainframe is the impending skills crisis, and it’s remarkable how often the press reminds us this could be a problem. But 10 years or more after we started talking about the looming shortage of mainframe technicians, there’s still remarkably little evidence that it’s causing a problem for users.

A recent report from researcher Vanson Bourne said CIOs are still concerned that a shortage could have a serious effect on mainframe system availability, and that specifically it might result in increased application risk (58 percent), reduced productivity (58 percent), and more project overruns (53 percent). But apart from the fact there’s still a substantial pool of mainframe expertise available, a great deal of work has taken place within both the vendor and user communities over the last decade to encourage educational institutions to include mainframe disciplines in the curriculum. While some universities have been reluctant to offer z/OS-based skills, many have seen a healthy uptake in mainframe courses.

Coupled with the growing focus on platform-independent Linux and Java-based applications, and the broad range of mainframe automation tools that are reducing the need for highly specialized systems specialists, there’s every sign that the worst fears of CIOs will be averted. The problem is, this issue is still influencing strategic decisions in the boardroom, and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future.