IBM Z Systems Software – Thinking Inside, Outside and Beyond the Box

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  June 20, 2017

The interactions of computing software and hardware have long provided one of the best examples of truly synergistic relationships. Without hardware, software code is a mass of commands to which nothing listens. Without software, computers (especially enterprise systems) are little more than expensive, ungainly doorstops. However, working together they can make magic greater than the sum of their parts.

Despite those interdependencies, public attention has long focused more on hardware than software. That may be because it’s simpler to get your head around physical objects than the abstract code that gives them life—easier to grasp and understand the machine than its soul. Whatever the case, the practice is unfair.

However, that situation has been changing for the better as the critical importance of enterprise developer and operations professionals comes into ever sharper focus. Developers, after all, have instigated and helped to drive the success of numerous new technologies and behaviors, including public cloud computing. They’ve also been the core audience and interpreters of data- and data center-centric solutions inspiring new business growth and market opportunities.

At the same time, enterprise operations personnel have never had a higher profile. As enterprises increasingly demand more efficiency and value from compute resources, IT admins and managers are the frontline troops responsible for achieving those requirements and delivering positive results.

So, it made complete sense for IBM to host an analyst forum, IBM Z: Software for Digital Business Transformation, at its headquarters in Durham, NC. Along with highlighting the work and insights of its Z mainframe software teams, the event examined how those groups are interacting with developers and operations professionals to deliver strategic value to their enterprise employers.

The event was also unique—in the dozens of IBM mainframe events that I’ve attended over the years, software has always been a supporting player, never the star. So, the meeting in Durham also qualified as IBM Z software’s first turn in the spotlight.

The dangers and opportunities of digital disruption

The event kicked-off with Barry Baker, whose role as VP of IBM Z software makes him responsible for the company’s mainframe software portfolio and strategy. Baker began by citing the Z platform’s high points and the roles it plays in supporting and driving over two thirds (68%) of enterprise production workloads.

IBM Z’s critical importance is especially apparent in banking, finance, credit cards and other transaction-heavy business processes. In fact, IBM Z solutions provide the foundation supporting over 30B business transactions every day and over $7.7 trillion in annual credit card payments. That’s a great honking lot of moolah by nearly any measure, but Baker also acknowledged that IBM Z’s status as the company’s and the industry’s longest lasting legacy computing platform also carries inherent risks.

The mainframe is regularly attacked by IBM competitors hoping to sow discontent and gain share among the company’s customers, pressuring them to abandon the platform despite its superior performance and resiliency. Those attacks could prove  fatal if IBM foolishly allowed the mainframe to stultify and fall behind customers’ needs and market trends.

As examples, Baker discussed the disparate fates of Eastman Kodak and Fuji Film. For decades both were dominant incumbents in traditional photography, film and processing technologies. Information digitization saw their paths separate. Fuji embraced modern technologies leading it to grow and stabilize its business. Sadly, Kodak resisted change, struggled constantly, repeatedly faltered and eventually failed, declaring bankruptcy in 2013.

Though Baker didn’t state the point openly, the Z platform has long been an innovation engine for IBM’s own transformation. Hardware evolution certainly contributes to that process, but supporting modern and emerging software technologies has arguably been more important. That began two decades ago when IBM announced support for Linux and Java on what were then called zSeries mainframe systems.

Numerous other new software projects, programming languages and tools followed. As a result, IBM’s customers were able to use their mainframes to embrace leading edge technologies for their own and their clients’ advantage.

The notion of creatively  melding legacy and emerging technologies may seem counterintuitive. However, Baker cited data collected from an IBM-sponsored survey to show that far from being sluggish dead-ends, incumbent companies that embrace innovation can help their customers understand, pursue and successfully embrace new technologies and thrive amidst industry disruptions.

That point is one IBM has understood, pursued and delivered on for many years.

Beyond the box – IBM Z software

The IBM Z event in Durham included breakouts by IBM Z software executives and team members in key areas, including:

  • Digital transformation – Utilizing the mainframe’s value as a trusted platform to support new modern applications and workloads
  • Modern languages – Leveraging the IBM Z’s robust CICS (application server) and IMS (information management system) middleware to optimize Java, Java Script and Swift
  • End to End DevOps – IBM Z as a common platform and “single source of truth” to support DevOps projects and processes
  • Developer Engagement – How IBM Z is using innovative APIs and ADDI to improve developers’ projects and outcomes
  • Managing IT Operations for Digital Enterprises – Embrace new monitoring/support tools, including OMEGAMON for JVM, Splunk and ELK

Three key messages emerged over the course of the day’s presentations. First, the mainframe’s function as a cross-enterprise platform enables customers to use IBM Z to explore new transformational initiatives and opportunities, then effectively integrate tested, trustworthy projects with existing business processes, applications and initiatives.

Second, IBM Z is the right way to move forward technologically and culturally. The company’s Z software teams work to ensure that modernization efforts successfully percolate throughout the enterprise. That’s an especially critical point considering the myriad challenges organizations face today, including the increasing velocity of business evolution, massive growth in the volume and manageability of data, the need to adopt and adapt to cloud and other new technologies, and resulting strains on IT operations.

Finally, by actively embracing software-inspired technological and business evolution the mainframe has changed forever. That includes adapting powerful IMS and CICS workloads to support modern applications and programming languages, like Swift. As a result, IBM Z continues to be a central and critical resource for the software and IT operations professionals who keep businesses running and relevant for customers.

Final analysis

How convincing was the IBM Z software event? All in all, the presenters acquitted themselves well. The individual talks mixed high-level strategic positioning bolstered by specific technical supports. The Q&A sessions were open, detailed and cordial, making a compelling argument for both the IBM Z’s continuing relevance and its role as an engine for future-focused business transformation.

That said, IBM’s way forward includes significant challenges and obstacles. Some relate to broader technological trends, like customers largely focused on Industry Standard-based systems and components. But the company also needs to deal with essentially cultural dilemmas, including how to attract a new generation of developers and IT operations professionals to a platform that too many consider quaint or a technological dead end.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Software can and will provide a way forward for IBM Z in both regards, offering operational insights into one of the industry’s most widely-held enterprise platforms and supporting the creating of new transformational applications. Developers and operations professionals can help those efforts succeed by leveraging access to the mainframe’s massive data resources and its position as a single source of enterprise truth.

Whatever the case, the analyst event in Durham made it clear that IBM’s Z mainframe software professionals and teams will play critically important roles in these efforts, whether they are in the spotlight or behind the scenes.

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