In a world of ubiquitous handheld IT devices, tablet and laptop computers, and PC workstations, it’s easy for people to forget—or never even realize—there’s a whole other world of refrigerator-sized workhorse mainframe computing platforms behind the scenes. They process the staggering amounts of data being produced daily by these devices and carry out transactional workloads to keep the digitally interconnected world an ongoing reality.

Admittedly, the younger generations are whizzes at using technology, such as the latest and greatest smartphones or other consumer electronics. That doesn’t mean, however, they’re technically savvy at building and deploying technology. The initial challenge for many IT educators, therefore, is to get students to look beyond these small digital potatoes to see the enterprise technology required to keep a national retailer or a worldwide financial institution up and running. J.P. Morgan-Chase, for example, is not going to rely on a Windows-based server.

Critically, a lot of IT students nevertheless cut their teeth in lab environments on nothing more than Intel-based machines running Windows or Linux, which doesn’t in any way prepare them for their first mainframe encounter.

“Just a few years ago, some of our students were finding themselves faced with a situation where there was a mission-critical system, responsible for a third of the world’s money supply, spanning 127 mainframes worldwide, and basically told, ‘There you go; good luck,’” says David Dischiave, assistant professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and program director for the school’s Global Enterprise Technologies (GET) programs. “As daunting as the problem was, our students were looking at the solution—the mainframe—and asking, ‘What is this? I’ve never heard of this thing called a mainframe. I’ve never heard of z/OS. I don’t even know how to turn this machine on or how to work with it.’ We realized then, about six years ago, we needed to plug a hole in our curriculum that wasn’t necessarily covered by our four core computing degrees.”

What’s in a Name?
Dischiave’s experience is not entirely surprising. Perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors to the mainframe’s “in the shadows” status has been its inability over the decades to adequately shake the name “mainframe.” Despite IBM re-naming efforts, such as designating the platforms “zSeries,” “System z,” “z9,” “zEnterprise”—with the “z” standing for “zero downtime,” people just seem to unconsciously revert back to “mainframe.”

Unfortunately, when many people hear that term, they think of, for example, NASA mission control rooms of the 1960s, and sprawling computers taking up entire buildings. In the modern era of handheld devices with catchy names, mainframe can come across as antiquated, particularly to younger generations.

“Once we realized we had to prepare our students for bigger computing problems, we did some research,” Dischiave says. “Yeah, we’d heard of mainframes, but all the literature in the ’80s and ’90s said they were dinosaurs and that nobody used them. Even the faculty we were working with at the time were saying, ‘No, no, that was stuff we used 20 years ago; I don’t think anyone uses that stuff any more.’

“With a little more research, we found not only didn’t they go away, but they’d become more critical to business operations, and they were on the verge of being fault tolerant, with companies going 10 years or more without a reboot,” he adds. “We were clearly missing a huge piece of the computing puzzle and something we needed our students to embrace.”

With almost 20 years of Microsoft Windows dominance in the personal computing space—and forays into the business server realm—it can be difficult to locate IT experts well-versed in the IT world of z/OS, z/VSE, CICS, COmmon Business-Oriented Language (COBOL) and other mainframe staples. Likewise, Linux variants have emerged as a business server OS of choice for many small- and medium-sized businesses. And, while mainframes easily and seamlessly support hundreds or thousands of virtualized Linux environments—66 of the top 100 IBM System z customers run Linux on the mainframe—many IT professionals outside of the mainframe space simply don’t realize it.

Despite its unintended mainstream anonymity, the mainframe continues to be one of IBM’s brightest server growth markets. In 2011 alone, IBM tallied more than 1,500 new and upgraded applications for z/OS and Linux on System z, with more than 100 new ISV partners coming to the platform in the same year. So, while the modern mainframe might struggle with its name recognition, its reputation in the high-end, high-performance business community remains a powerful draw. According to Dischiave, that reality is something he now drives home regularly to students via the Syracuse GET programs.

“We introduce the mainframe by posturing it alongside enterprise-class computing problems,” he says. “In the enterprise technology course, every semester I have half a dozen or so students ask, ‘What are these mainframe things? I was told they don’t exist, that they’re obsolete.’ So it’s a misconception I have to correct every semester.

“We needed courses like this to introduce the concept of ‘big problems, big computers; small problems, small computers,’” Dischiave continues. “We look at what an iPhone is good for, what a tablet is good for, what a PC is good for—what workloads you would expect to run better in those environments—all the way up to mainframes and their workloads.”

Raising Mainframe Student Awareness
Rather than try to rejuvenate the mainframe’s image via costly advertising campaigns—which would be largely pointless since the mainframe more than sells itself in the enterprise-level business computing market via its reputation for large scale transaction processing and legendary high availability—IBM focuses its efforts on raising mainframe awareness to aspiring IT students in colleges, universities and high schools alike.

IBM’s System z Academic Initiative program currently enrolls more than 1,060 schools, spanning 67 countries—more than half of the schools are outside of the U.S.—and IBM’s assorted mainframe contests, including Master the Mainframe, have drawn the participation of nearly 44,000 students worldwide.

As IBM’s Academic Initiative increasingly spreads the mainframe reach, more universities will undoubtedly undergo a similar epiphany as that experienced by Dischiave and Syracuse, although the mainframe itself will likely continue to remain the silent IT powerhouse most people don’t even know still exists.

“It’s definitely made a difference when it comes to recruiting,” says Dischiave. “We have lots of employers now coming to us looking for students with an understanding of large enterprise computing environments. The mainframe is still very much in use today by some of the largest businesses you can name. I don’t see something this powerful and important to businesses becoming a dinosaur any time in the foreseeable future.”
 

Sidebar—Why Mainframe
At the enterprise computing level, perhaps no other piece of IT hardware is as much a victim of its own success as the IBM mainframe. It seems the conventional wisdom of many newcomers to the IT industry—and even some IT veterans—is that the mainframe is an archaic throwback that’s no longer relevant.

In reality, however, the mainframe continues to this very day to serve as the backbone IT server of choice for many of the world’s largest businesses and organizations.

This is particularly true in the worldwide banking sector, where—based on asset size—96 of the top 100 global banks operate IBM System z mainframes, according to System z install base and financial records compiled by the U.K. magazine The Banker.

More generally, IBM estimates as much as 60 percent of all data available online is stored on mainframe platforms, and there are more mainframe-based CICS transactions processed each day than there are Web pages served.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder a majority of Fortune 1000 companies operate mainframe environments for at least some aspect of their IT infrastructures.

System security is one of the most sought after aspects of the mainframe, with System z holding the highest security rating/classification for any commercially available server and is the only server to obtain the EAL5 security classification.

Additionally, mainframes seamlessly support hundreds or thousands of virtualized Linux environments—66 of the top 100 IBM System z customers run Linux on the platform.

Last but not least, the System z continues to see growth in the market.  In 2011, IBM tallied more than 1,500 new and upgraded applications for z/OS and Linux on System z, with more than 100 new ISV partners coming to the platform in the same year.

Considering all of this, it can seem perplexing that the mainframe remains such an IT secret. Yet, if you consider the vastly growing world of handheld computing devices, you can begin to understand why so many people are unaware of the mainframe servers behind the curtain that make so many of today’s digital conveniences and miracles possible. Computing devices today are largely seen as small, rather than the large machines that are actually responsible for running gigantic operational and transactional workloads, which is where the mainframe has always, and continues, to excel.

—R.R.