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Students think mainframes are cool

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A personal ad going up in campuses around the world says:

FIND LOVE AND STABILITY

Tired of being continuously available? Not me! I'm the world's leading self-healing, self-configuring, self-protecting and self-optimising enterprise server. If you're interested in having a low-maintenance relationship with your critical workloads, we could be a match made in heaven. Do you think you have the skills it takes to administer my environment?

In fact, it is part of an advertising campaign promoting university courses in large system computing; large scale in this case is synonymous with IBM z/series.

IBM and its customers have recognised for some years now that the greatest danger to the continuing success of z/series is the age profile of the system programmers who are essential to their smooth uninterrupted running. The majority of skilled system programmers were trained in the heyday of the mainframe back in the '70s and early '80s and will be retiring over the next five to ten years. This is at a time when the total mainframe computing power worldwide is growing rapidly.

Part of the solution to this demographic time-bomb has been the continual improvement in ease of use and the upgrading of the system programmer tool set. Another major strand is to bring new young blood into the profession. The advert is just the first step to attract university computing students.

IBM is now working with over 250 universities around the world to provide mainframe courses. The help comes in:

  • The creation of course material covering all the basics including ISPF, JCL, VSAM and Assembler, that all go back to the original 360 days, as well as the slightly newer z/VM, CICS and DB2 and finally the newer boy on the block, Linux.
  • The provision of mainframe resources either on the campus or as a shared worldwide resource so that student can try it for real and begin to understand the power and complexity of the environment.
  • Internships of six months or a year in IBM as part of a university course.

Some of the students involved with the program suggested to IBM that they should run a mainframe contest. The contest was in three phases. The first was to do some very simple things with ISPF (the GUI for mainframes). I have not touched a mainframe for ten years, but was trained up in the heyday, and I could have completed it with no difficulty. The prize was a "Master the Mainframe" T-shirt which was won by hundreds of students across 85 universities in North America. The intent of the first phase was to raise awareness and interest in the mainframe.

The second and third stages were more difficult and culminated with starting and using DB2 and CICS environments. Very near the end was a JES initiator problem, when a student asked a question about this they got the reply "Congratulations for reaching Task 17 of the contest! The tasks get increasingly difficult as you progress through them. You are working on resolving a problem that came from z/OS system support software testing. It took two experienced technicians several hours to resolve this problem. Use the knowledge you have gained to this point to continue to explore the z/OS system and see if you too can resolve the problem." I am fairly certain that would have defeated me!

The top five winners received a laptop and, wait for it....

A three day trip to the Poughkeepsie mainframe laboratories. Those of us who have been there might not see it as a great prize but it did give the students a better idea of the importance of the environment and some introduction to possible employers. Two of the finalists will be starting with IBM this summer.

The students came away with the view that mainframes are cool, not just because they are powerful and versatile but, more importantly, they offer good job prospects.

I started my computing career with the advent of the mainframe so I have to say I am pleased to see it having some new blood to keep in going through my retirement.

Copyright © 2006, IT-Analysis.com

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