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Linux Jockeys, Meet Mainframe Mavens

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One can hardly imagine two more different groups of people in the world of computing.

In the glass house, where the mainframe reigns in air-conditioned splendor, mainframe jockeys running Cobol batch jobs keep the core business of banks, airlines and other large enterprises humming, as they have for decades.

Meanwhile, down the hall, Unix hackers are coding distributed applications in Java, Perl and XML on a Linux server sitting under their desk. To them, the proprietary mainframe applications and their archaic, green-screen user interfaces seem like something left over from the days of black-and-white television.

For years, these two groups had little reason to talk with each other. But now, they are being brought together by the unlikely combination of mainframe hardware, IBM’s VM operating system, and the open source Linux operating system.

In the last two years, Linux on IBM’s Z-series or its older S/390 mainframes has seized the computing world by storm, reviving IBM’s moribund mainframe business, and providing an alternative to IT managers whose computer rooms are bulging at the seams with small servers.

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Breathing New Life Into The Mainframe: Linux is rapidly becoming a force in the mainframe data centers of corporate America.

Linux is running on mainframes at ISPs like Telia, Sweden’s largest telecom company, at financial heavyweights such as brokerage house Merrill Lynch and Securities Industry Automation Corporation (SIAC), the technology arm of the New York and American Stock Exchanges, and at industrial concerns including heavy equipment maker Caterpillar, aerospace giant Boeing, and recreational vehicle-manufacturer Winnebago Industries.

At least 450 mainframe shops have Linux on their mainframes, according to IBM, and if the thousands of downloads of the software from the Web are any indication, many other shops are experimenting with it.

At Computer Associates, No Culture Clash

So are information technology departments being torn apart as these two groups start working together? Not exactly. With a few exceptions, the turf wars and infighting that one might have expected from this unusual union seem not to have materialized.

When Unix programmers began working with Linux on the mainframe at Islandia, N.Y.-based software vendor Computer Associates, “We did not see a big culture clash,” recalls Walt Thomas, the company’s CIO.

Computer Associates began deploying in-house applications on Linux on its mainframes in the summer of 2001, after the firm began porting its own software products to mainframe Linux. The company offers 54 products, including its Unicenter data center management software, for mainframes running Linux.

The software vendor first experimented with running its own systems on mainframe Linux by moving some Ingres databases off of Sun Microsystems servers and onto the mainframe.

When it discovered that those databases “ran like a banshee,” says Thomas, the company started shifting over other applications, such as Web servers. More recently, it has deployed a brand-new customer application on the platform.

Looking back, Thomas believes beginning with databases was a smart move. The database administrators “owed their allegiance more to the database than to any particular platform,” he says, and were delighted to see their databases running so much faster on the mainframe.

The Computers Associates mainframe team didn’t have much trouble accepting Linux into their world either. “For them,” says Thomas, “this was something new in their day. It was interesting stuff, and not hard to learn.”

The Unix and NT people at Computer Associates, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic at first. “On the distributed side,” says Thomas, “We saw some of their normal reluctance to accept anything on the mainframe.”

‘Like Working With Your Father Or Grandfather’

That reluctance is not surprising, says Rich Smrcina, a programmer at Milwaukee, Wisc.-based systems integrator Sytek Services who has been involved in a number of Linux mainframe installations. For one thing, the two groups are divided by age.

“Typically the open systems people are in their 20s, and the mainframers are in their 40s and 50s,” he says. “It’s like working with your father or grandfather, and who wants to do that?”

But once the two groups begin working together, the open systems programmers “often discover that the mainframe workers have been doing this for a long time, and know what they’re doing. I’ve seen a couple of instances where the open systems guys are just blown away by how much the mainframers know,” Smrcina says.

While Smrcina has encountered some instances where programmers or systems administrators working with Unix and NT felt threatened by the new mainframe environment, he’s mostly seen IT shops where the open systems people are accepting it with open arms. Overall, he says, the two groups are “getting along just fine.”

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