Part of the fun of watching movies and TV shows made 10, 20 or even 30 years ago is seeing how “modern” (or in some cases “future”) technology was depicted. Remember War Games and how Matthew Broderick had to insert application floppy disks that were the size of a medium pepperoni pizza to search for an outside computer modem? Or what about those stylish mobile phones Crockett and Tubbs used to carry on Miami Vice? They could’ve just about hid behind them when the shooting started. And don’t even get me started on the analog clocks on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Then there’s the way Hollywood portrays business computers. When they want to show that a business is ultra high tech, they use one of those big, bulky mainframes with the slowly rotating giant tape reels and lots of flashing lights. Of course, we all know that client/server computing has replaced the mainframe as the core of business. Right?

Not so fast, Bunky. This may be a case where Hollywood is actually getting it correct, because it appears the mainframe is far from dead. In fact, in an independent survey of 135 mainframe customers conducted by independent software vendor William Data Systems, nearly half (49 percent) of “Big Iron” (the insiders’ nickname for mainframes) customers expect to grow mainframe processes during the next year.1 This wasn’t a one-industry survey either. The customers came from a range of different verticals, including government, financial services and manufacturing. What is going on here?


The Case for Big Iron

Although the client/server model of computing offers a lot of benefits, there are any number of good reasons not to banish the mainframe next to Dick Tracy’s bulky two-way wrist radio on the island of unwanted technologies. One of the biggest is the financial aspect.
Simply put, the cost of mainframe computing is just too attractive. Mainframes are extraordinarily reliable - they don’t crash every time there’s a minor power fluctuation - and the cost per gigabyte of processing power is extremely low. Mainframes are generally a better choice for high-volume or complex data processing - the kind you’ll find in most data centers. They react quickly to requests and can store and process data at higher rates of speed. For flat-out number crunching, despite the recent gains made by client/server applications and hardware, nothing beats the performance of a mainframe.
Another advantage is the ability to run alternative operating systems such as open source Linux. With security issues still high on the list of corporate IT concerns, having a choice of six other operating systems aside from the market leader provides IT with more options on how to best protect the organization and its data from independent hackers and organized cyber-criminals. It also gives them more options on how to tailor performance to the organization’s needs.

Yes, the mainframe market is alive, well and growing. As further proof, no less an authority on the mainframe market than IBM recently invested $100 million in improvements to its z-platform. You can rest assured that if they thought the mainframe market was going away, this money would’ve been spent elsewhere. Yet, for all of that sunshine and rosy glow, there is one potential problem looming on the horizon that could bring it all crashing down like a James Bond villain’s secret lair.


The People Gap

While the market for mainframes continues to grow, the labor pool with the expertise to operate and maintain them is shrinking - especially within enterprises. One obvious reason is that the Baby Boomers who have been responsible for them for years are hitting their retirement years. Given the choice between sitting in a windowless, fluorescently lit, temperature-controlled back room in an office building or playing the back nine at the club, they’re opting for the latter.

Given the proliferation of computer sciences graduates coming out of schools and universities across the country, you wouldn’t think losing the Boomers would be a problem. The trouble is, most of these new graduates have little interest in learning about, much less operating, mainframe computing. Mainframes are old school, not new and cool like Eclipse or service-oriented architecture. Telling their friends they’re working on a mainframe is not exactly the way to win prestige points either.

Many probably worry about becoming obsolete as well. The prevailing perception is that mainframe technologies are going away along with the jobs. Even though it’s not true, the perception is the reality for many. They want to be sure their job skills will help them remain employed for the long haul rather than having to be retrained down the road.

Even if they maintain their jobs over time, being part of the mainframe team is probably not perceived as the fast track to IT manager, IT director or CIO/CTO. Those with ambition want to go where the promotion action is.

What that means in practical terms is that while enterprises continue to increase their reliance on mainframe computing, they will find it increasingly difficult to find the staffers they need to keep those mainframes operating efficiently. The resulting gap has the possibility of bringing all those slowly turning reels to a grinding halt.


Riding to the Rescue - Managed Services

While it may seem like an insurmountable problem - the Boomers will continue to get older and the “newbies” will continue to seek out what’s cool - there actually is a sensible solution: managed services for mainframe computing. In this model, specialist providers keep and grow a stable of mainframe experts that can step in immediately to begin managing and maintaining the Big Iron. There are several advantages to sourcing it out rather than trying to keep it all inside.

For one, a managed service provider (MSP) can use different incentives than the internal IT department in an enterprise to attract the best and brightest. There are plenty of mainframe computers around, so there’s no worry about job security - unlike in an enterprise where a sudden shift means the end of that job. Because they’re specializing in this area, the managed service provider can create a career path with growth possibilities; if they’re managing other types of computing, they can offer additional training as well. In short, they’ll be able to attract and retain a staff of experts far more easily than an internal IT department.

By keeping this stable of experts, MSPs are able to scale staff up or down as the need arises. These people work with the technology every day. So additional training has a better ROI for their companies and the clients they serve. With an MSP, mainframe specialists are available 24x7x365 to handle the kind of mission-critical support demanded of high-volume computing, especially in data center settings. This specialization also helps ensure that they’re able to meet the most stringent compliance requirements for Sarbanes-Oxley and other legislation.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of offloading the mechanical requirements of mainframe computing, however, is that it allows the internal IT staff to achieve a higher degree of business/IT alignment. Without the need to manage the day-to-day operations, internal IT staffs are in a better position to focus on how they can use mainframe technology and its awesome computing power to achieve business goals.

Not Quite Dead

While many of the technologies from movies a decade older or more are now only seen in museums, the mainframe isn’t one of them. It’s still alive and kicking and more important than ever. Its greatest challenge isn’t relevance. It’s finding IT professionals who want to invest their careers in keeping that technology operating.

Managed service providers specializing in managing mainframe computing are offering a way to avoid the headaches of keeping the Big Iron operating at optimum levels. They help enterprises capture the falling computation hard costs and fix the rising administrative soft costs at the same time. It’s not the mainframes that need replacing, just the way they’re managed.




  1. Brian Koma. "Worker Shortage May Stymie Strong Main Frame Growth." William Data Systems, May 2006.

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