Evangelizing Mainframe
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Immortal Jellyfish and Mainframes

Let’s start with the elephant (or in this case, the jellyfish) in the room. I’m sure you’re wondering what Turritopsis dohrnii—the immortal jellyfish—has to do with mainframes. Let me explain.

The Immortal Jellyfish

The immortal jellyfish is found in the Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan. The genus is believed to have originated in the Pacific but has spread all over the world through trans-Arctic migrations, and has divided into several populations that are easily distinguishable.

At their largest, immortal jellyfish have a maximum diameter of about 4.5 millimeters (0.18 inches) and are about as tall as they are wide. They begin their life as free swimming larvae known as planula. Once a planula settles down, it gives rise to a colony of polyps that are attached to the sea floor. All the polyps and jellyfish arising from a single planula are genetically identical clones. The polyps form into an extensively branched form, which is not commonly seen in most jellyfish. The jellyfish bud off these polyps (in what is technically known as the medusa phase) and continue their lives in a free swimming form, eventually becoming sexually mature.

The clever thing is that if an immortal jellyfish is exposed to environmental stress or physical assault, or gets sick or old, it can revert to the polyp stage, forming a new polyp colony. For the biologists among you, it does this through the cell development process of transdifferentiation, which alters the differentiated state of the cells and transforms them into new types of cells. This process can go on indefinitely, making the jellyfish biologically immortal.

Where Does the Mainframe Come in? 

It’s clear that the immortal jellyfish is an interesting piece of biology, but how does it relate to mainframes? It’s quite simple: Mainframes have been with us for over 50 years, and in that time they’ve been written off as “your dad’s technology,” “dinosaurs” (which, by the way, roamed the Earth for over 150 million years) and plenty of other pejorative terms. And yet, every time it seems like mainframes are going to die, they spring up anew—vibrant and perfectly capable of using the latest technologies.

You may remember System/360 from 1964. The system that was so good it covered all the points of the compass (360 degrees!). And you might recall the days of IBM and the seven dwarfs—Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell, General Electric and RCA. With General Electric’s computer business and RCA being sold to competitors, the other companies became known as the BUNCH. System/370 was a marketing triumph as the replacement for System/360 in 1970. The idea was that if System/360 was the system for the 1960s, then System/370 was the system you needed for the 1970s! System/370 saw the introduction of virtual storage (amongst other innovations), and MVS was introduced in 1974.

Through the 80s and into the 90s, users could buy plug-compatible mainframes from Amdahl, Hitachi and Fujitsu. At its peak, Amdahl had an estimated 24 percent market share. Amdahl was bought by Fujitsu in 1997.

System/390 was introduced in the 1990s, which in many respects was not a great decade for mainframes. Along with System/390 came MVS/ESA, VM/ESA and VSE/ESA. In 1995 IBM gave us OS/390. In the 2000s we got z/Architecture, which is IBM’s 64-bit instruction set architecture for mainframes. And in the 2000s, we also saw the introduction of z/OS. IBM renamed its computers IBM Z in 2017.

An Evolving, Forward Looking Platform 

During this time, IBM kept backwards compatibility, so a COBOL program written in 1971 will still work. In addition, IBM has always been forward looking and, perhaps, never more so than at the moment. The truth is, there are lots of experienced mainframe professionals with many years of experience and the scars to prove it, who are very familiar with green screens and can get work done very quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately for the platform, they’re approaching retirement age.

IBM has realized that this could be an issue and has taken great steps to breathe new life into the mainframe. Most subsystems now have GUIs so that younger people who are used to easy-to-read screens can immediately see what’s going on. Mainframe data can be accessed from browsers on mobile devices using CICS or IMS. The Internet of Things can be used to start transactions. JSON and RESTful data can be used on the mainframe. Java and other programming languages that students will have used in college now work on the mainframe. Blockchain and Docker work on the mainframe. And most recently, there’s been the announcement of Zowe.

Zowe is the first open-source framework for Z. It provides solutions for development and operations teams to securely manage, control, script and develop on the mainframe like any other cloud platform. The intention is for the project to bring together industry experts from a range of companies to drive innovation for the community of next-generation mainframe developers—whether or not they have mainframe platform experience. That’s the key to mainframe-using organizations being successful in the future; new developers don’t need to have previous mainframe experience! With Zowe, non-mainframer developers can use the open-source industry standard tools they’re already familiar with to access mainframe resources and services.

And that’s why the mainframe is like the immortal jellyfish. No matter how often it’s written off as dead in the water, it always comes back, better and stronger. So, if you’re looking for a new metaphor for the mainframe, or an image to have tattooed on your arm to show you’re a long term mainframe professional, look no further than Turritopsis dohrnii.

Posted: 11/15/2018 2:41:24 PM by Trevor Eddolls

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