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IBM tries regenerating mainframe software community

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Citing the all-too-familiar numbers that the mainframe remains alive and quite well, IBM Corp is rolling out a blitz to address the lack of software, third party support, and skills base. The announcement, first disclosed at an analyst briefing in New York, covered products from IBM's WebSphere, Tivoli, and Rational brands, plus various initiatives aimed at rebuilding the mainframe community itself.

Available immediately, IBM is releasing Rational development and runtime tools for COBOL. It follows up in June with the release of WebSphere Process Server and the WebSphere Enterprise Service Bus. Later in the year, IBM will release DB2 Viper (the database that adds XML as a native data type), WebSphere Portal 6.0, and Tivoli Federated Identity Manager. Some of these products have unique features.


For instance, the Rational COBOL generator isn't a COBOL IDE per se. Instead, it is a development environment for Enterprise Generation Language, a simplified version of COBOL developed by IBM that targets development of forms-based applications to simplify data access. With EGL, you can generate COBOL on the back end while generating JSP and Java servlets on the commerce server end. EGL is not new, but the Rational development tools based on the mainframe are. With EGL, IBM is trying to reach beyond the limited population of COBOL programmers so e commerce apps for accessing legacy data can be written more quickly. Otherwise, if you have to wait for the limited pool of COBOL developers, who are probably busy in maintenance mode, the apps might otherwise never get written.


Making EGL more available is part of a larger strategy to broaden the skills pool for mainframe development. IBM cited IDC statistics that the population of COBOL developers has actually stabilized since 2002. Actually, the fact that COBOL populations haven't declined recently might be seen as a good sign, since it is not exactly a popular topic in computer science curricula.


According to IBM stats, mainframe data is doubling annually. That alone makes IBM quite concerned about the looming skills gap. Consequently, another obvious pillar is aiming at student programs.


IBM is sponsoring development of new courseware. According to Jim Rhyne, an IBM distinguished engineer in the System z group, the new curricula won't necessarily be restricted to teaching COBOL. Instead, it will deal with topics like designing and managing systems for extreme scalability.


Additionally, IBM is sponsoring a new global "Master the Mainframe" contest aimed at students, plus new university courseware. Another pillar is boosting ISV support. IBM will expand no-cost access to IBM IT architects, plus the usual array of IBM PartnerWorld joint marketing, sales, and technical support. Looking forward, IBM is also ramping up work on mainframe SOA.


According to Rhyne, in many cases, it would make more sense to expose CICS transactions as web services, rather than go through the intermediate stage of encapsulating them as Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs). Compounding the issue, IBM is suggesting that in many cases, it makes more sense to deploy collapse some of the functionality now distributed to outer tiers back to the mainframe. "If I have a component that interacts with data, why shouldn't I try to collocate the component in the same place where the data resides?" asked Rhyne, explaining the rationale.


According to Rhyne, IBM will base much of its work to expose CICS transactions as web services on work being done in emerging Service Component Architectures (SCA) and Service Data Objects (SDO) which seek to apply component-based development to web services, are part of this direction. For IBM, the obvious motivation of all this is to protect its mainframe business, which continues to grow at a compound rate of roughly 20% annually.


Altogether, IBM's software thrust, adding its z versions of its own offerings, partner programs, and student initiatives are intended to make sure that System z growth does not occur in a vacuum.

By Tony Baer - Computer Business Review