Mainframes Critical to Cloud Strategy, CA Finds

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Mainframes continue to play a critical role as more companies move critical applications to the cloud, but skills shortages causes concern

With more and more organisations moving their business-critical applications to the cloud, mainframes remain as relevant as ever, according to a survey by CA Technologies.

But businesses are struggling to find skilled IT workers familiar with the technology. This was revealed during a CA webcast during a panel discussion on 17 November.

Years after the mainframe was declared dead, it continues to play a critical role in the data centre. According to the report, 80 percent of surveyed organisations said that mainframes were an important part of their current business strategy, and 73 percent said it is, or will be a significant component in their cloud strategy.

Critical Big Iron

The results are consistent with an earlier mainframe study surveying European organisations, released by CA in October.

The results of the new CA survey were “not a surprise” and the numbers are “very close” to the European results, said panel participant Dayton Semerjian, general manager of the mainframe business unit at CA Technologies. About 79 percent of respondents in the European study said the mainframe remains critical to their business and 75 percent claimed the systems will play some role in their cloud strategy, said Semerjian.

In this latest survey, more than three-quarters of the respondents said they will maintain or increase their investment in mainframe software and mainframe staff. “It’s clear that the mainframe is here to stay,” said Semerjian.

Semerjian and three other mainframe experts discussed the survey results on a webcast panel discussion, which focused primarily on the impending skills shortage as skilled mainframe workers retire.

Despite the critical nature of mainframes, the survey showed organisations worried about losing staff skilled in mainframe technologies to retirements while younger workers are not learning about mainframe operations. About 35 percent of survey respondents also said that recent graduates are “not as technically proficient” as their counterparts from 10 years ago.

Dumbing Down

The shortage wasn’t “unique” to mainframes but was an across-the-board shortage for all IT skill sets, said Jon Toigo, CEO of Toigo Partners International. Colleges and universities aren’t graduating “cadres” of skilled IT workers as in the past, said Toigo.

According to Toigo, the average age of a mainframe administrator is about 53 years old. Barring any changes in the retirement age or technical event such as Y2K, there is about a decade left with the current mainframes workforce, he said. The skills shortage would wreak more “havoc in the distributed world” before mainframes, Toigo predicted.

The reason for the skills shortage also lies with the organisations themselves, Toigo said, because organisations aren’t communicating how critical mainframes are. The survey found that 61 percent of the respondents felt the IT industry didn’t do enough to promote mainframe careers, and the panellists agreed. The IT industry needs to “remind people what the mainframe is about,” said Toigo.

Organisations can build internal training programs, similar to the 12-week long Mainframe Academy that CA Technologies launched 1 November, said Toigo.

Semerijan said CA also focuses on specific universities that offer mainframe-specific courses and training. “We get great people and then we train them intensively,” he said. It was possible, he said, to address the shortage by increasing the visibility of the mainframe within the company and training them accordingly.

Cloud Computing

The panel also addressed the role mainframes would play in the cloud, pointing out that organisations have already been creating virtual machines and running private clouds on mainframes. Cloud computing was just a “new cool name” for shared computing, said Semerjian.

“Cloud computing is something we’ve been doing for 40 years,” said panelist Keith Winnard, technical leader of the IT technical services group at JD Williams.

Mainframes have been central to most enterprise processing for the past four decades, and will continue to be so, because mainframes work well as cloud computing platforms. The characteristics that make a cloud strategy successful are the same characteristics that make mainframes successful, said Semerjian.

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