AGL's mainframe marriage lasts the distance

Talk to AGL IT engineering services manager Jim Kotoulas about dumping the mainframe and he will tell you such chatter is downright irresponsible.

As one of Australia’s original mainframe customers, the gas and electricity supplier has had numerous units in service since the 60s starting with the arrival of a ‘360’ in March 1965 (the second in Australia after AC Nielsen).

The mainframe still remains one of AGL’s premier platforms (currently a modest, entry-level z800 model).

"There are very few business systems that can do activity-based costing like the mainframe and it provides invaluable economic inputs when modelling ROI and TCO analysis. It's important to know how much computing is costing you – down to the MIP level.

"Understanding the business of computing, as with any business asset or investment, allows technologists in the enterprise to contribute responsibly to the business decision making, a domain otherwise left to financial controllers," Kotoulas said.

"Little or zero down-time is what most modern businesses want and the mainframe delivers very large meantime between failure. It's certainly no silver bullet but it's had 40 years to iron out a great deal of the problems still apparent in other platform offerings and that's part of its enduring appeal; some, like Gartner, would say it's a competitive advantage."

As for the value proposition of the mainframe, Kotoulas said it shouldn't be judged purely on technology merits alone.

He said migration or any strategic IT direction needs to be validated by rigorous commercial diligence and business continuity planning.

"The mainframe is considered costly but it is cost-effective if it services your business needs. IT and business managers alike need to work with a mainframe for a complete financial cycle and then measure up its bona fide tolerance to round-the-clock, large-volume workloads with little or no exception, compared with other systems.

"Remembering true ROI analysis also incorporates the opportunity cost of down-time, so a great deal can be positively argued about the depreciating ‘cost’ of maintaining high-availability systems," Kotoulas said.

When asked whether mainframe customers are locked into a proprietary system that they can't migrate off even if they wanted to, Kotoulas said: "Tell me the genuine, fundamental difference between the ‘proprietary’ [nature] of open systems like Solaris, HPUX, Windows, or the difference between another proprietary RISC or Intel infrastructure offering? I believe most vendors are somewhat in the box seat and so it is the challenge for IT to ensure that the selection, albeit in some cases proprietary, is the optimal one for the business. Generally speaking, many of the mainframe’s detractors have been getting it wrong for 40 years, not just the last few years, and it is no surprise a great many have had little or no experience with [mainframe] computing."

Kotoulas said that, although there is no question that mainframe skills are "greying", they are "like a bottle of good wine".

"Generally, seasoned mature professionals are better technologists and experienced individuals who have already succeeded in ‘been there and done that’, can do the jobs of three or four open systems engineers in some instances, usually from a deep level of understanding of the role of computers and their relationship to the business, not just IT," he said.

The problem with mainframe skill sets is that, unlike Windows and Linux, which you can learn at home, mainframe skills are more like an old-school mentoring apprentice system; and this can only happen on appropriate campuses or within organizations that have mainframes, he said

IBM Australia and New Zealand’s zSeries product manager, Jim Orman, said 40 years is quite an achievement for the mainframe. The people involved in designing the original S/360 were at the anniversary celebration.

Orman described the local mainframe market as “buoyant” and said the new model provides infrastructure simplification and significant savings in upgrading existing models.

“The ability to run multiple Linux instances enables [consolidation of] some 1000 external boxes into the mainframe,” he said. “And the z890 has 28 different models and price points, increased granularity with four-processor engines, and up to 32GB of memory.”

When it comes to ongoing mainframe support, Orman said while there is some concern about “greying” skills, IBM is working with Griffith University to train mainframe programmers.

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