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IBM Hardware IT

The Mainframe World Is Alive, Even For Those Under 40 361

Posted by timothy
from the onions-on-belts-and-snowshoe-flippers dept.
willdavid writes with a link to a report by Jeff Gould at Interop Systems, about the definitely-still-around world of mainframe computing, from which he extracts: "Last week I had the occasion to visit SHARE, the premier mainframe conference, which was held in San Jose just down the road from where I live. Based on what I saw, there is one thing I can tell you for sure, and that is that Cobol is not dead. And neither is the mainframe. When I mentioned to one of my friends that I had been to SHARE, he joked that it must have looked like an AARP convention. But this turned out not to be so. While there were certainly a few 60-somethings strolling around the halls, the under 40 generation was also well represented. What struck me the most was not the advanced age of the people but the relative youth of a lot of the software being discussed." However, it's not all fountain of youth there, either. (Thanks, BDPrime.)
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The Mainframe World Is Alive, Even For Those Under 40

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  • Re:The good ole days (Score:3, Informative)

    by argent (18001) <peter@NOspam.slashdot.2006.taronga.com> on Thursday August 21, 2008 @07:26PM (#24697617) Homepage Journal

    Man would I love to install Linux in a virtual machine. I'll bet it could fly.

    Google for "penguin farm ibm".

  • Re:The good ole days (Score:4, Informative)

    by fishbowl (7759) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @07:31PM (#24697675)

    Are you aware that Linux competes with z/OS among IBM Mainframe products? IBM will happily deliver a system z with Linux.

  • by JackStrife17 (982300) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @07:45PM (#24697851)

    I actually just took a job in software development on z/OS (the new hip, backwards-hat wearing mainframe operating system). Aside from the impressive clustering capabilities, we've got a lot of new and exciting stuff. (I personally am a big fan of AT-TLS) It's true that the systems are old and the interfaces archaic and painful to use, but the level of configurability and reliability these things offer is staggering. We have a few customers with 100% uptimes in the 20-year range.

    My school (Northern Illinois University) actually is one of the few left offering full mainframe tracks in their computer science department, although COBOL was the most painful programming experience of my life.

    I'd bet that my meta-group of 50 or so people has a median age of about 33, and while it is still the old dinosaurs who know the most, the definition of "dinosaur" in my personal, 15 person group is around 50 years old.

  • Re:Need... (Score:5, Informative)

    by malchus842 (741252) <stephen@adamsemail.net> on Thursday August 21, 2008 @07:50PM (#24697903) Homepage

    Raw IO power, in our case. With the number of transactions we process per day (financial services - clearing, trade matching, reconciliation, etc) nothing beats the System-i in terms of raw IO in getting the data in, massaging it and spitting it out...and far easier to manage than a server farm, at least for our use. The same vendor that provides our software also provides a JAVA version, but it's not going to handle the 2 billion+ transactions we do in a quarter.

    And this software isn't legacy - it's relatively new and updated on a regular basis to take into account developments in the kinds of products offered.

    "Horses for courses" as my British friends like to say./p?

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @07:57PM (#24697969)
    People were saying mainframes would die because of things like cluster servers, desktop computing, etc. The idea was that cheap commodity servers could replace mainframes for back end tasks, without the expense (an IBM mainframe, last I checked, cost $100k per year just to own, plus the salaries of the mainframe operators), and that commodity desktops could replace mainframes with thin client connections for typical office applications. While the latter is certainly true, the former is not -- it turns out that operating hundreds of commodity servers actually costs a lot, and for many institutions with HUGE server needs, mainframes wind up being a lot less expensive in the long run. The costs of commodity hardware come from things like cooling needs, power needs (including the power needed to run large air conditioners), the increased number of administrators needed to maintain that many systems, and a few other factors, which together wind up exceeding $100k (or $1M for the largest mainframes) by a wide margin.
  • Re:Need... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Shinobi (19308) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @08:03PM (#24698015)

    Quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control
    Redundancy, Redundancy, Redundancy, Redundancy, Redundancy
    Reliability, lots of it.
    LOTS of I/O.
    Solid VM technologies that makes VMWare appear like the software equivalent of a toddler still in diapers.
    Hardware-accelerated crypto, integrated into the overall system design, and not just an add-on card, at least on fairly modern mainframes.
    Some mainframes also run dedicated hardware for CRC on data being churned through.

    Designing all that into a cluster leads to something that is just as expensive to operate, and still won't have the same reliability as a mainframe environment.

    And no, Google's model does not apply here. Google aren't working with data that must approach 100% reliability to the extent that it's possible for humans and technology to make it.

  • by hot soldering iron (800102) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @08:08PM (#24698071)

    Steam engine? Why yes, but now they call them 'Power Plants'. Most still use coal, but there are a lot of natural gas powered ones, and a few nuclear powered ones.

  • Re:Need... (Score:5, Informative)

    by vux984 (928602) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @08:11PM (#24698091)

    Now, they are great for running legacy programs (such as payroll, etc)

    Payroll is not a legacy application. You still get paid don't you? :)
    My point is, even if payroll were 'rewritten' it would still be a suitable mainframe application.

    what advantage does a mainframe have compared to say, a server?

    They are bigger.

    A mainframe more comparable to a server cluster or server farm than a single server.

    They feature processors dedicated to IO tasks. They are the kings of data throughput.

    They are also big on reliability. Everything is hot-swappable. Everything is redundant. Failover is automatic and processes are rarely even aware its even happened. They have stuff like io multipathing (multiple redundant buses, controllers, etc) and execution integrity -- multiple processors do the same work, the results are compared, and only if they all agree is the computation accepted, errors are thus averted and defective processors and memory can be detected (and hot-swapped), transparent to the running programs and users.

    Because they are basically an entire 'server farm' in a dedicated optimized box they also can require less space and power than a server farm of equivalent capability, which is one of their selling points.

    I doubt there are any features of a mainframe that can't be obtained by building a suitable server farm, but at some point in some cases the mainframe is markedly more cost effective.

  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @08:17PM (#24698139) Journal
    COBOL also has better support for binary coded decimals than most languages. The latest POWER chips have hardware support for BCD, but the OS/360 derivatives (I think they're called System Z or something now, but I lose track of IBM branding) have had this since the beginning, and it's still popular in financial systems where you are required to have a certain number of decimal digits of precision. Most languages these days have some library support for BCDs, but they are not nearly as tightly integrated as they are in COBOL.
  • by Abattoir (16282) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @08:49PM (#24698509) Homepage
    There's a *lot* of mainframes at IBM-Boulder. They were deploying brand new (at the time) z9's to replace old 360/390 and earlier zSeries. If I recall the conversation with the facility manager for that project, it was a 5 to 1 ratio of old systems to the z9's, most of which would be running Linux VM's for WebSphere deployments of various types.
  • Re:Need... (Score:3, Informative)

    by malchus842 (741252) <stephen@adamsemail.net> on Thursday August 21, 2008 @09:03PM (#24698667) Homepage

    Exactly. I believe the last reported peak was in the 2200/sec range. And we expect our volumes to double. Fortunately, our System-i (AS/400) team can simply license additional processors 'on the fly' to improve performance. My team even has some of our Unix stuff (I'm the Unix Manager) running in a logical partition on the System-I. And it's freaking fast.

  • by Pharmboy (216950) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @09:12PM (#24698757) Journal

    Not really. Seen any steam engines lately?

    Yes, I have. 80% of the electrity generated in the United States is done by steam engine. Coal and nuclear power both use steam engines.

    Just because YOU are unfamiliar with a technology, that doesn't mean it isn't being used. And thank you for clearly demonstrating that point.

  • by Pig Hogger (10379) <pig.hogger@NoSpAM.gmail.com> on Thursday August 21, 2008 @09:15PM (#24698769) Journal

    Cobol is still around because it's an extremely verbose language that is easy to understand (I never said "write into"), so managers can understand what their programmers are doing.

  • z/OS as a dinosaur (Score:5, Informative)

    by qbzzt (11136) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @09:16PM (#24698785)

    z/OS is an upgrade of OS390, but yes - it has something called UNIX System Services, which is POSIX compliant but not as friendly as LINUX.

    It's not that z/OS fights changes, exactly. Windows is crufty because it has to run MS-DOS programs from the eighties. z/OS has to run programs from the sixties, and do it with a high degree of reliability.

    Disclosure: I am an IBM employee and the author of a mainframe book [amazon.com].

  • by Alpha830RulZ (939527) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @09:38PM (#24699007)

    but better suited to tasks where there's a LOT of input/output data,

    They're still in heavy use, for just such jobs. Your phone and power bills are probably mainframe generated, but your stock brokerage statement probably isn't. Your credit card bill probably is run on a MF (my company probably does it), but most of the transactions on it probably came from Unix/Windows sources. The MF rules in sequential processing, though mostly from inertia, while Unix/Linux/Windows Server is taking over the DB side.

  • Re:Need... (Score:4, Informative)

    by corbettw (214229) <corbettw@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday August 21, 2008 @09:48PM (#24699133) Journal

    None of the business needs you described sound like something that couldn't be done by just about any UNIX-like OS with appropriate applications (Oracle Financials, JD Edwards OneWorld, SAP). Even the hardware failures you mentioned can be handled with clustering and having cold, warm, and hot spares on hand. And just about any enterprise SAN or NAS has a phone-home feature.

    So again, what's so special about mainframes? You guys talk about the bandwidth, what kind of throughput do you get? How many megs per second? Let's put this in raw numbers, I'm honestly curious about why those systems are supposed to be so special.

  • by dreamchaser (49529) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @09:53PM (#24699217) Homepage Journal

    Mainframes are far more fault tolerant than any server. A cluster of servers has fault tolerance, yes, but it a bit harder to manage. Mainframes Just Work for the most part...oh and yes you can run Linux on them.

  • by tyen (17399) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @10:39PM (#24699643) Journal

    There are no Linux-equivalent options for the non-student hobbyist wanting to cut their teeth on the latest generation zSeries software. You simply cannot rent cheap mainframe time with the IBM ADCD [ibm.com] (though you could still learn a lot with just a raw z/OS subscription, there would be no compilers, no databases, no middleware, etc.). I'm not kidding or exaggerating; we just looked into this earlier this year (and if any experienced zSeries folks know differently, please post a correction here). IBM prohibits anyone from buying an ADCD subscription, then renting out time on their zSeries, at any price, with access to the ADCD. Your only option if you don't outright own a z/OS license is to pay for the IBM Remote Development Program [ibm.com] (RDP). And no, you cannot buy an RDP subscription then resell slices of it. So you can see why the minimum entry fee of more then $4,000 USD per year for RDP would put off most non-student hobbyists.

    If you are a student, you can see if your school offers zSeries courses, or look into getting a faculty sponsor for such a course in higher education campuses. IBM has programs for encouraging the training of students in zSeries technologies.

    And before anyone pipes up with "Use FLEX-ES!", the commercial x86 zSeries emulator, let me disabuse you of that notion: it is dead in the water at the moment, due to legal fallout from IBM's suit with PSI that is too convoluted to get into here. Only grandfathered commercial licenses are kept on support; no new commercial or development licenses are granted by IBM, and all old development licenses were forcibly terminated as they came up for renewal. We know this because we were one of the developer licensees.

    And before anyone else pipes up with "Just buy a used/cheap z/OS box!", let me set you straight on that notion: IBM has cracked down on z/OS licenses to refurbished hardware, to the point where we couldn't find anyone who would sell us old generation hardware with a new license of z/OS because they couldn't promise they could secure said license. And even if you could find some available hardware, the cheapest z/OS license quote we could find for the smallest old mainframe that we could locate was around $150K. At that price, you might as well go all-in for a brand-new "baby mainframe" for $250K.

    The zSeries tech is undeniably cool and fun to play with but definitely not for non-students with a beer budget, even just to learn. The Linux world could learn a heck of a lot from the mainframe world, though. My dream platform would probably be a Lisp Machine with its data management and security facilities (amongst others) leavened and matured from mainframe tech. The zSeries folks take for granted solutions that the Linux world doesn't even realize are problems to begin with, and the zSeries guys aren't ashamed to swipe tech they like from other platforms so they aren't standing still, either; it is a pretty nifty learning experience if you are willing to dispense with any preconceived notions of "obsolete mainframes".

  • by HockeyPuck (141947) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @11:33PM (#24700195)

    Disclaimer: I manage the DASD (disk based storage) for a mainframe (z10) environment.

    We used to run a System 390 (think watercooled and took up 1/4 of our datacenter floorspace)
    We then migrated to a S390 (aircooled, the first big black box) in about 1995
    We then migrated to a z900 in 2002.

    We've just completed migrating to a z10.

    The applications continue to run on our brand new mainframe unmodified since the early 90s. Sure we've gone from Bus and Tag to ESCON to FICON (1Gb, 2Gb and now 4Gb). But the same applications are taking up significantly less power and a percentage of the mainframe than previously did.

    In the early 90s, 486dx was king. How many applications that ran on 486dx DOS systems are currently running in a VMware VM that is running MSDOS 6.22?

    Next time you swipe a credit card, and within a few seconds you're approved for your transaction, including determining if you're purchasing something within a common pattern of recent purchases. How many x86 boxes would you need to manage this?

    Thank us mainframers.

    Btw: I'm 36, run linux at home and on the mainframe.

  • Re:Need... (Score:5, Informative)

    by daethon (1349241) on Thursday August 21, 2008 @11:36PM (#24700243)
    Most of the reasons have been listed by other people, but I figured I'd put them all in one place and then add a few things:

    1) Reliability: 5 9's (99.999%)
    2) Backward compatibility, there are people still running applications written 40 years ago
    3) Security: Physical (hard to move a refrigerator), Network (no external network when applications working internally), RACF, Highest level of security rating of ANY server, ever.
    4) Architecture: Redundant everything: Spare processors, spare power, spare, everything. Predictive failure/automatic fail over for individual components. Memory Bus greater than anything out there. Pipes to Storage extreme. Cryptographic processors to do SSL, etc.
    5) Scale up: 64 processors (4.4GHz), 1.5 TB of Memory, etc.
    6) Scale out: GDPS (Geographically Disperse Parallel Sysplex) up to 32 boxes?
    7) Hipervisor: Its a network in a box. Applications talking to each other use IP, not TCP/IP, so you aren't sending 35% data, 65% header when applications talk. Network is at the speed of memory. zVM has been developed for over 20 years.
    8) Power Efficiency: Compared to a server cluster + cooling + redundant power, etc.
    9) Network Simplicity: No need for a rats nest for your rack, cable simplicity in some cases from over 1000 cables down to 12. From 14 switches (which are very expensive) to 4.
    10) Management simplicity: Less staff needed to keep it up and running. Instead they are focused on adding business value
    11) Running Legacy (aka Business Critical) applications, your web presence, your portal, and a myriad of other disparate applications in one place.
    12) Create new servers in minutes without needing hardware "on standby."
    13) Compartmentalization in a single box
    14) Shared everything while still fully separate
    15) Workload manager: able to on the fly change how much resources are allocated to images AND (this is the cool thing, cause other VMs do that) give it goal times for operations. As in: Complete this task in 1/100th of a second, and it will allocate, on the fly, for that to happen, and it will guarantee it.

    I think that's enough...I'm sure I'm missing some stuff, but that should be a good compilation.

    One thing to note: I'm under 30, and didn't know that mainframes existed 5 years ago.

    Mainframes are NOT the answer to all questions. Intel is NOT the answer to all questions. Itanium, Solaris, Power, etc...none are the answer to all questions.

    Buy the right tool for the right purpose.
  • by eclectechie (411647) <mredivo&binarytool,com> on Thursday August 21, 2008 @11:58PM (#24700445) Homepage

    In the 90's, the AS/400 went from a 32-bit CISC processor to a 64-bit RISC processor.

    If this were Intel, we would have had to go through the code looking for bustage (like we did when Windows' wParam went from 16 to 32 bits). This being an AS/400, we didn't even have to recompile! Just copy everything to the new system; on first execution, programs are converted to 64-bit opcodes.

    ALL AS/400 (iSeries, System i) programs have been 64-bit since the mid-90s; no programmer intervention required.

  • by gillbates (106458) on Friday August 22, 2008 @12:05AM (#24700507) Homepage Journal

    I am planning their destruction, a VM that runs on Intel hardware but responds just like a mainframe,

    Good luck.

    I used to work in a mainframe shop, and while the latest Intel hardware can run circles around one of the processors on a mainframe, it can't beat all 16 of them by any standard:

    1. In the first place, the mainframe has 255 escon channels for IO; the PC architecture is limited to just 16 interrupts; sure, you can daisy chain more devices to a PC, but you have to share the bandwidth. (That is, assuming you could even fit them in the server case).
    2. A mainframe has 16 redundant processors, with each processor's twin checking the results of the other (that's 32 total "cores"). If any processor goes flaky, its twin restarts the instruction and the OS calls home to IBM. A few hours later, IBM reps show up to swap out the processor while the machine is running. IOW, that 24 hour payroll run will still get done, even if the processor on which it is running catches fire in the process. When was the last time an Intel server had its processor swapped out without powering down the machine and losing all of the threads in the process?
    3. Mainframes have the option of integrated cryptographic processors to which they can offload encryption tasks; can you even get crypto hardware on a PC? Even if you could, is it standardized and well-supported?
    4. A small mainframe system is 4000 modules. To port these to a PC, using a different language, would probably take the average IS department several years. That is, assuming they have the source code for all of them, and the staff understands how they function and interact. Yes, it's doable, but for what benefit? So you and future programmers don't have to be bothered to learn COBOL, or mainframe assembler?
    5. Most of all, mainframes routinely run for years without a reboot. The average scheduled downtime for a mainframe is less than 5 minutes a year; the unscheduled downtime is practically non-existent. Considering the average PC hardware experiences a hardware failure on average once every three years, it's likely your mainframe killer PC will die before they can migrate all of the applications off the mainframe. That is, assuming they even let you take the risk...

    I'm not really a big mainframe fan, but they do have their place in the business world. Businesses don't care about MIPS or running the latest games; they want a system that works reliably with a predictable cost structure. IBM mainframes provide that.

  • by BBCWatcher (900486) on Friday August 22, 2008 @12:24AM (#24700665)

    Actually, IBM has been putting a lot of POWER inspiration into its z10 processors, although they are not at all the same. That means a z10 core is clocked at 4.4 GHz. It also has hardware decimal floating point, something nothing else has (except POWER6), which speeds floating point calculations by about 3 orders of magnitude versus software.

    These processors are state-of-the-art, even in raw computational performance terms.

  • by Tyrannicalposter (1347903) on Friday August 22, 2008 @01:08AM (#24701007)
    A company I used to work for after being bought out implemented SAP because that was what the new owners used. What did 6 years and $300 million get them? Less features, and stock inquires went from ~2-3 seconds to about 10 - 30 seconds. Or several minutes if there was a problem. At the time, the mainframe was running about $3 million/year including support staff. Thanks to SAP, I now snicker every time I see car commercial touting "German engineering"
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 22, 2008 @03:25AM (#24701893)

    There is a way how to learn and hack mainframes for free, but it's illegal (I post as AC, but I love mainframes, and would definitely like to see improvements in IBM policy with respect to students).

    Download Hercules emulator, it's open source and can emulate even the latest hardware. Then look for "zOS ADCD" on eMule or Kademlia P2P network. Here you can find disks with z/OS and all other IBM software for mainframes. The documentation for mainframes (including all the software) is freely available at IBM site (look into system Z -> z/OS -> library); by the way, the documentation is excellent. Some IBM Redbooks, such as "z/OS basics", are also very useful to the beginner.

    Because it's illegal, I would not mention it on resume, but it can be very useful to improve one's skills in certain areas.

  • Re:Need... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Chris Snook (872473) on Friday August 22, 2008 @03:38AM (#24701971)

    A z10 has 336 I/O controllers. Each one is a ppc processor. You do the math.

    The last time I saw a zSeries tape drive, the tape controller was a pSeries.

  • Banks (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 22, 2008 @04:00AM (#24702059)

    I am doing some stuff with a tier 1 bank in GB. They are planning to move their main ledger off the mainframe, and all the other banks are watching very closely - their mainframes cost them a fortune, but none of them dare to be the first to move.

    Needless to say, my account is not with this bank, and if it were I'd move it.

    Elsewhere, we see large enterprises who keep their crown jewels on their mainframes, but with heaps of mid and high range unix systems between users and the MF to do most of the number crunching and keep unnecessary load off the MF. What interests me is seeing some of the MF technologies working into the high end Unix - IBM have put partitioning technology into the P-series stuff, and Fujitsu have transferred stuff (e.g. memory mirroring) into the Sun/Fujitsu M-series.

  • Re:Mod parent up (Score:2, Informative)

    by stine2469 (1349335) on Friday August 22, 2008 @04:04AM (#24702079)
    that should have been an easy hack

    branch paycut
    multiply the rate times .8
    if new rate less than minimum wage
      replace with minimum wage
    return

    easy.  do you think one of us could get paid for this? (apologies if it has already been suggested)
  • Re:Need... (Score:3, Informative)

    by TheRaven64 (641858) on Friday August 22, 2008 @08:45AM (#24703769) Journal

    IBM is in the process of unifying its processor designs to keep costs down. The CPUs you find in their high-end POWER boxes and the mainframe systems are almost the same, but with different instruction decoders. The POWER 6 has a relatively modern instruction set (a superset of the PowerPC instruction set from the '90s), while the z10 is binary-compatible with the OS/360 machines from the early '60s. The POWER6 is currently the fastest CPU on the market for raw number crunching and a z-series mainframe can have up to 64 chips with the same execution units running at around 4-5GHz.

    As the other poster said, both the Z10 and the POWER6 come with a hardware decimal floating point unit. In a lot of financial applications, it is important to have a fixed number of decimal digits of accuracy. If you try to represent 0.1 with a binary floating point value, you lose some precision (1/10 can't be represented as a finite sum of 1/(2^n)). To avoid this, it is common to use binary-coded decimal (BCD) values, where each byte stores a value from 1-100 - basically using 4 bits for each decimal digit. If you program in COBOL you can use these directly. In Java and most other languages you can use them via a library. You can perform BCD operations easily in software using a combination of integer operations, but just like software binary floating point this takes a few hundred instructions for each primitive operation. If you're doing the kind of financial operations where BCD is important then a single Z10 or POWER6 will outperform a moderate sized cluster of Xeons.

  • by Toon Moene (883988) on Friday August 22, 2008 @09:04AM (#24704057) Homepage


    COBOL also has better support for binary coded decimals than most languages.

    And, what everyone and his dog seems to forget: it has an embedded declarative language for number formatting, the single most important thing in financial programming.

  • Re:BCD? (Score:4, Informative)

    by TheRaven64 (641858) on Friday August 22, 2008 @09:07AM (#24704105) Journal
    Because that gives you fixed point arithmetic. BCDs allow floating point with a fixed number of decimal significant figures. The POWER6 and Z10 chips have a hardware decimal floating point unit for precisely this reason. Trivial case, consider 0.1. You can't represent this in any finite number of binary digits (just as you can't represent 1/3 in decimal). If you need a fixed number of decimal places of precision, you can use fixed-point arithmetic. If you need a fixed number of decimal significant figures, you can't use binary at all because 0.1 is expected to have the same precision as 1.0 but in reality 1.0 will be stored as 1x2^0 while 0.1 will be stored as 2^(-4) + 2^(-5) + 2^(-8) and so on until you run out of binary digits.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 22, 2008 @09:36AM (#24704521)

    It IS a dinosaur.

    The z990 has an IBM T-REX CPU.

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