Craig S. Mullins
Database Performance Management

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March 2001


IT’s a Crazy World
by Craig S. Mullins

The world of Information Technology (IT) never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes the IT world is so crazy that it boggles the mind. Don’t believe me? Here are a few things to think about.

Why is it always all or nothing in this business?

The prevailing wisdom these days is that PCs and the new economy are dead, but portals and ASPs (Application Service Providers) are the only place to be. This is hogwash. First of all, PCs are far from dead. Almost everyone who accesses the web does so from a PC. But the web is what many pundits claim is killing the PC. I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to download and store information from the web. I want to be able to run applications like word processors and spreadsheets. I want to be able to do my taxes on my computer. And today the PC is the best platform for doing this. There may come a day when these applications are accessible and usable over the web, this is the promise of ASPs; but not today.

With limited broadband capabilities most users do not have the speed for the ASP model to prevail. And there are other problems with ASPs. For example, do you really want someone else (the ASP) to control your data?

What about the new economy? It isn’t dead, it is recovering. But the new economy is not being driven by brand new companies conducting old business models over a new delivery mechanism (the web). And the original assumption that these companies didn’t need to make money to survive is obviously completely false. In reality, the new economy is being driven by traditional businesses morphing into e-businesses as they add the web to their business model. Flashy new economy companies like eToys,, and went belly up because they had to compete with entrenched old economy companies that were moving to the web. Companies like Toys R Us, Walgreens, and PetSmart. Companies that make money. The brand new companies that are thriving are those with unique web-based business propositions. Companies like Yahoo and eBay.

And what is with the current love affair with portals? Portals are valid applications with undeniable value, but everything need not be a portal to be useful. The world of IT is too influenced by hype. The PC is alive and the new economy isn’t what you think it is. ASPs have a future but they are not the only future. And portals are great, but not the only application you need. “All or nothing” is a completely wrong way to view any industry. But then again, maybe that last statement was too “all or nothing” itself to be accurate?

Do you want some more proof of the craziness of the IT world? Think about this: when did mainframe become a dirty word?

IBM describes their new eServer zSeries machines as e-business enterprise servers designed for the high-performance data and transaction needs. Sound suspiciously like a mainframe? That’s cause it is a mainframe. But somewhere along the line, oh, probably in the late 1980s, mainframe became a dirty word. So IBM changed the words they used. No longer does IBM produce mainframes, they now call them Enterprise Servers – yuk. To be fair, IBM has adapted their hardware to be better suited to today’s modern IT shop. IBM’s current mainframes (yes, they are mainframes, I refuse to use the generic term “Enterprise Server”) are highly available, CMOS equipped, 64 bit, Linux-compatible machines running Java applications. And it is not just mainframe hardware that delivers benefit in terms of RAS (reliability, availability, scalability). The operating systems and system software of non-mainframe servers are years behind the RAS that can be delivered by OS/390 or z/OS combined with DB2, CICS, and other system software. Face it, you never get Windows “the blue screen of death” on a mainframe.

IBM should embrace the term mainframe and work to define it appropriately, instead of giving in and refusing to use the word. Hey, let’s face it, IBM’s biggest hardware competitor is Sun, and they understand the warm and fuzzy feeling that the term mainframe evokes to long-suffering IT professionals. To many IT folks, mainframes bring to mind images of high-powered performance, five nines of availability, unparalleled manageability, robust security, and ever-expanding scalability.

Let’s take a quick look at IBM’s competitors and how they embrace the term mainframe better than IBM. Sun describes its Ultra Enterprise 10000 Server as a “mainframe-class server.” That is much easier to understand than an eServer zSeries Enterprise Server (or an Ultra Enterprise 10000 Server, for that matter). Sun also sponsors their Mainframe Affinity Program to promote how Sun is guided by mainframe disciplines and attitudes. And it is not just Sun. A recent Unisys ad touts its e-@ction Enterprise Server ES7000 as an “e-Business server that acts like a mainframe.” Clearly, mainframe is not a dirty word to everyone.

Mainframes are even getting some good press with regard to the California electric power crisis. A recent article in Computer Reseller News suggests that mainframes could be used in place of Unix servers to reduce California’s electric consumption. The article quotes David Boyes, CTO of Sine Nomine as saying “a single z900 mainframe costs about $32 per day in electricity, while power for an equitable configuration of 750 Unix servers would cost about $624 per day.” This will not cause most of us to rethink our hardware platform choice, but it is definitely something to think about for power-strapped California.

In many cases, mainframes are not just reliable, but cost-effective as well. In short, the word “mainframe” need not mean unfriendly green screens, complex JCL, and ancient COBOL programmers any more.

Speaking of COBOL, it ain’t dead yet. Ever since I joined the world of IT, pundits have been declaring COBOL dead. But there are millions upon millions of lines of COBOL code running applications for the biggest businesses in the world. These applications are not going to be wholesale replaced any time soon. If they were all going to disappear why did we spend so much time, effort, and money to make them all year 2000 compliant? It may be true that new applications are increasingly being written in more modern languages like C, C++, and Java. But the core systems that power business are written in COBOL. And they will continue to be for quite some time.

Which brings me to my book recommendation for March: Murach’s Structured COBOL (ISBN 1-890774-05-7) published by Mike Murach & Associates. This comprehensive book is a great learning and reference tool for the professional mainframe COBOL developer. The book is easy to read and provides numerous code samples and examples to highlight the accompanying text. A companion CD-ROM provides many good soft copy program samples. This book, as well as many other great technical references for the mainframe professional, can be ordered online at

Before signing off for this month, I’d like to mention one other symptom of craziness exhibited by IT professionals. Many IT folks seem to believe they can automate everyone else’s job but not their own. As the experts on technology you’d think we’d be able to see the fallacy of this belief. By developing computerized applications to support business processes, we automate just about every job in our organizations. But try to tell some application programmers to automate their testing procedures or to use a code generator and you’d think you insulted their mother. We resist automation for fear of losing control or perhaps, losing our job. These are fears are understandable, but not really justifiable. There is an IT skills shortage and companies want to hire more IT professionals than are available. And we are over-worked –who among us really wants to work these 12-hour days all the time?

The truth is, most IT tasks and procedures can be streamlined and made more efficient using automation: automated systems management, database administration and tuning, and yes, even application development. Automation will not be able to completely replace IT professionals any time soon, but it is important as organizations struggle to cope with a shortage of skilled IT professionals. By turning some of the work over to the computer, IT can become more efficient, more effective, and provide a higher ROI to the business.

And isn’t that the point?


From Database Trends, March 2001.
2001 Craig S. Mullins,  All rights reserved.