Who’s gonna run this thing?

Not to be contrarian, but – well – let me be contrarian. Rant coming. TL;DR – there needs to be a free version of z/os & it’s siblings sooner than later, to not do this is to potentially starve the platform out of existence as we know it.

I don’t think, for a moment, that when people (looking to learn) ask for a mainframe-in-the-cloud type experience, that they are asking for Linux One or Linux on Z, they want a z/OS-type platform on which to learn and play. Otherwise it’s just Ubuntu or SUSE, like I can run on my laptop. Except for anyone but the kernel developers and a few select others, most would never know the difference (outside of performance, perhaps). It’s certainly not the classic z/OS / VM / tpf / etc. experience that most mainframers talk about daily.

As for the other offerings, none are the same (or even really the same sport) as having your hands on a “real” z/OS (or z/VM, etc.) mainframe – the closest of which, for people not buying hardware, would be z/PDT – the System Z hypervisor that runs on Linux. By real, I mean a system on which one can provision storage, configure parmlibs, install software with SMP/E, develop load modules, configure platform software and tcp/ip and more: IPL the system, crash it, figure out how to build a stand alone dump; figure out how to read that dump, get the system up and running again; gen a system from scratch; install an upgrade with a serverpac and so on. If you don’t know what some of those things meant, good, that’s the point.

Until IBM figures out that they’re losing opportunities because of this, I fear the platform is going to get harder and harder to support and defend. Most (if not all) of the cloud – or public offerings on Z (again, not talking Linux) are for developers. Master the mainframe, z Systems cloud trial (RD&T for z “Test drive development tools”) etc.

Herein lies the rub. Where will the next generation of Storage Engineers & System Programmers come from? Who will write the DFSMS/ACS routines, or write the assembler-based system exits? Who will wade through SMP/E reading hold data and figuring out how to fix or remove a wonky PTF that didn’t apply correctly or went PE? Who will configure the VTAM / 3270 applications and the intricate work tweaking TCP/IP net filter and ATTLS? Who is going to do the detailed capacity / performance analysis and tuning of the storage, wlm, cpus and so on? To say nothing of the gargantuan task of securing these beasts.

These are skills with theoretical backgrounds in many other disciplines, but the specifics and technical difficulties pertaining to using those skills on this platform are non-trivial. People need time, mentors and opportunity to learn it. That opportunity is nearly gone – or unrealistically appraised at this point.

Sure there are a few colleges which teach these skills, and the tried and true way of apprenticeship still works if you can get it, but how prevalent is that? Moreover, why would a fresh-out-of-school person take a chance on an OS/platform that they’ve never gotten to put their hands on? In today’s world, they can get a free/inexpensive version of every. single. OS. on. the. planet. for personal use (Microsoft & VMWare development and full evaluation versions, Linux is open source and free, as are the BSDs) – except for z/OS and it’s time-tested brethren. Why is that? How does that secrecy help generate buzz and the next generation of loyal mainframers?

To ask the fresh, talented, next generation of techies to go to work in a mainframe shop – or to go to a school to learn mainframe is asking them to take a gigantic leap of faith. They have the opportunity to be hands-on with 99.999% of the tech out there before they leave high school; but somehow, someone expects that they’ll self-select into becoming a z/OS sysprog? Why would they? Not having a clear track to this pipeline is the single biggest security issue and threat to this platform there is. Companies will hire the remaining few, then outsource, then divest – unless we (and IBM) start driving interest by making the platform (the whole platform, not just the development bits) available to anyone who wants to play with it.

It’s a huge opportunity missed, and I hope it changes soon. One of the hardest things to see is, after giving a talk at a non-mainframe centric conference, people who come and ask how they can get involved directly. You can’t. Unless you go to work or school somewhere special, or are willing to lay out several thousand out of your own pocket – you just have to admire it from afar. And that’s too bad, because it’s a kick butt OS and a super-challenging ecosystem that the unbelievably sharp new technologists would sink their teeth into. They’d eat it up. Many were programming from the time they could walk and computers just. make. sense. But this computer, with it’s super configurable and somewhat non-forgiving “you better know what you’re doing or how to figure it out” practices and protocols, requires time and a steep ramp-up period to become proficient. It has to start now.

When you go to those job fairs, conferences, or just on the next marketing push – come up with a way to give away for free or cheap a copy of these OS’s that run on a hypervisor like zpdt for people to just play with, destroy, hack, but mostly learn. Will there be some negative consequences ? Maybe. But fear not, the rest of the OS providers who have gone before in this space have already figured that out, with a mix of bug bounties, licensing agreements and lawyers. But that’s a topic for a different post.