You have probably lost count of the number of articles that point out that the trusty mainframe is alive and well, which is just as well, because here is another, Tony Baer writes.
But if anyone was in any doubt as to the longevity or otherwise of the mainframe, they will hopefully have had those doubts dashed by the IPO in May last year of Micro Focus. The Cobol tools vendor was the first software IPO on the main market of the LSE for two years, raising a cool £52,7m ($99,3m) after expenses, and proving once again there is still an appetite for mainframe tools, and indeed mainframe tool companies.
Perhaps that is not surprising: analysts at Gartner Group believe 75% of all business data is still processed in Cobol, and that there are between 180 and 200 billion lines of it in use worldwide.
So it was for good reason that IBM last month again noted that the mainframe remains alive and quite well, as it announced that it is rolling out a blitz to address the perceived lack of software, third-party support and skills base in the mainframe space.
Bill Zeitler, IBM Systems and
Technology senior vice-
president and group executive
The announcement covered products from IBM's WebSphere, Tivoli, and Rational brands, plus various initiatives aimed at rebuilding the mainframe community itself.
Available immediately, IBM is releasing Rational development and runtime tools for Cobol. It will follow up in June with the release of WebSphere Process Server and the WebSphere Enterprise Service Bus. Later in the year, IBM will release DB2 Viper (the database that adds XML as a native data type), WebSphere Portal 6.0 and Tivoli Federated Identity Manager.
Some of these products have unique features. For instance, the Rational Cobol generator is not a Cobol IDE per se. Instead, it is a development environment for Enterprise Generation Language (EGL), a simplified version of Cobol developed by IBM that targets development of forms-based applications to simplify data access.
With EGL you can generate Cobol on the back end while generating JavaServer Pages and Java servlets on the commerce server end. EGL is not new, but the Rational development tools based on the mainframe are.
With EGL, IBM is trying to reach beyond the limited population of Cobol programmers so e-commerce applications for accessing legacy data can be written more quickly. Otherwise, if you have to wait for the limited pool of Cobol developers, probably busy in maintenance mode, the applications might never get written.
Making EGL more available is part of a larger strategy to broaden the skills pool for mainframe development. IBM cited IDC statistics that the population of Cobol developers has actually stabilised since 2002. In fact, the fact that Cobol populations have not declined recently might be seen as a good sign, since it is not exactly a popular topic in computer science curricula.
According to IBM statistics, mainframe data is doubling annually. That alone makes IBM quite concerned about the looming skills gap. Consequently, another obvious pillar is aiming at student programs. IBM is sponsoring development of new courseware. According to Jim Rhyne, an IBM distinguished engineer in the System z group, the new curricula will not necessarily be restricted to teaching Cobol, either. Instead, it will deal with topics such as designing and managing systems for extreme scalability.
Additionally, IBM is sponsoring a new global 'Master the Mainframe' contest aimed at students, plus new university courseware.
Another pillar is boosting ISV support. IBM will expand no-cost access to IBM IT architects, plus the usual array of IBM PartnerWorld joint marketing, sales and technical support.
Looking forward, IBM is also ramping up work on mainframe SOA. According to Rhyne, in many cases it would make more sense to expose CICS transactions as web services, rather than go through the intermediate stage of encapsulating them as Enterprise Java Beans.
Compounding the issue, IBM is suggesting that in many cases, it makes more sense to collapse some of the functionality now distributed to outer tiers back to the mainframe. "If I have a component that interacts with data, why should I not try to colocate the component in the same place where the data resides?" Rhyne asks.
According to Rhyne, IBM will base much of its work to expose CICS transactions as web services on work being done in emerging Service Component Architectures and Service Data Objects, which seek to apply component-based development to web services, as part of this direction.
For IBM, the obvious motivation of all this is to protect its mainframe business, which continues to grow at a compound rate of roughly 20% annually. Altogether, IBM's software thrust, adding its z versions of its own offerings, partner programs, and student initiatives are intended to make sure that System z growth continues.