The Big Iron Crunch

by Ostatic Staff - Dec. 28, 2013

For the past thirty years industry pundits have been predicting the demise of the mainframe, but in the coming years the crowd arguing for mainframe longevity will be retiring, and new blood is going to be hard to come by. Without a fresh influx of interested developers, the purportedly grand benefits of big iron may prove to be a moot point. Running Linux on the mainframe is a good start, but for companies deeply invested in COBOL the time to start the migration is now.

I lived through a mainframe retirement. It can be a harrowing experience, especially for those who have never bothered to upgrade their skills. The mainframe workers who found no useful place in the company were let go, while others learned project management or Linux to stay relevant and employable. The migration was considered a success because we had the talent to move the workload off to clusters of x86 servers, but without the talent available to manage the mainframe part of it, we would have been in trouble.

Janet Sun from SHARE, an "an independent, volunteer run association" with deep ties to IBM, Oracle, and Hitachi, encourages the tech industry that the mainframe is here to stay in "Don’t Believe the Myth-information about the Mainframe":

  • 96 of the world’s top 100 banks, 23 of the 25 top US retailers, and 9 out of 10 of the world’s largest insurance companies run System z
  • Seventy-one percent of global Fortune 500 companies are System z clients
  • Nine out of the top 10 global life and health insurance providers process their high-volume transactions on a System z mainframe
  • Mainframes process roughly 30 billion business transactions per day, including most major credit card transactions and stock trades, money transfers, manufacturing processes, and ERP systems.

What Ms. Sun does not address is how many of these top banks, retailers, and insurance companies currently have active projects in the works to migrate workloads off of the mainframe. The article reads like an advertisement, trying to garner attention where there is very little. The Programmers Stack Exchange has an interesting thread asking why aren't young programmers interested in mainframes. The answers are enlightening, if circumstantial.

I'm a young programmer. I've never seen a mainframe, never had a sandbox/virtual mainframe to play with, never had a friend come up to me and say, "This is really cool, check it out!". I see the web every day, there's readily available - and free - webapp dev learning tools, and all my friends are doing neat stuff in it. Which am I going to choose?

There's very little actual new development going on in mainframes. If you land a job at IBM working for their mainframe R&D division you might get the chance to do new development (and in that case you might even really enjoy your job!). In reality, though, face it: you won't be working there. You'll be working in the back room of some financial institution or other maintaining 50-year old COBOL code written by someone who still thinks that 64KB is a whopping huge pile'o'RAM. (This same guy will probably be your boss.)

It's a ghetto, and an ever-shrinking one.


The last 10 years of my working life has been dedicated to mainframe programming. Learning all there is to know about batch, jcl, Cobol, Assembler, Easytrieve, CICS and Web Services and I enjoyed it immensely and would still be doing it if not for noticing a trend. My last place of employment had me working side by side with web developers (jsp, javascript, spring and hibernate) and I noticed that the company was bringing in web developers with comparable years experience for a lot more money. Not to mention the fact that the web developers position was a lot less stressful.

There are three interesting facts at play, young programmers are not interested in mainframe technology, the programmers who are working in the field are aging closer to retirement, and a lot of big name companies run a core component of their business on the mainframe. To me, this sounds like an amazing opportunity for experts in migrating applications from the mainframe to Linux on commodity hardware.

One can deny that things are changing as much as they like, it doesn't change the fact that the change is happening.