The lions of IT, the mainframe pros, learn new post-recession approaches

What IT can't supply because of cutbacks, it still has to find a way to deliver

BOSTON -- Gray-haired systems administrators dominate the hallways and meeting rooms at the IBM Share conference, and not always by choice. Businesses haven't been hiring a lot of new IT workers, and in some cases employees have put off retirement as a result of the downturn.

But the pressure, especially today, on these older data mainframe professionals is as great as it has ever been.

In a survey of its members, Share -- one of the few remaining user-controlled enterprise user groups around -- found that cost reduction and saving money were their top concerns. But it's not just reducing costs that matters, said Al Williams, president of Share and a director of IT at Penn State in University Park, Pa.

"If you are really going to be useful and survive, you need to be able state that 'I provide service for my business that is really important,' " Williams said. "Most of us have come up through the technology realm where it was obvious we needed the coolest technology. It's not obvious anymore, money is tight, and we've got to show value."

In the post-recession environment, the demand and supply mismatch between IT departments and the businesses they serve is growing, said Alex Cullen, an analyst at Forrester Research. Business demands on IT are increasing while IT budgets have been cut.

The needs that IT can't address as a supplier, it can address through other means, Cullen said. This means that IT has to be a facilitator connecting the business units to the services they need, whether internally or externally, such as from a cloud or software-as-a-service provider.

"IT is going to become more responsive, not because it can do more, but because it can acknowledge and help the business with more stuff," Cullen said.

The path to value is taking some familiar and some new directions while also running into age-old issues.

One person who can point to hard dollar savings is Rick Barlow, z/VM administrator at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. Barlow said his company has saved $15 million, mostly in cost savings, by putting new applications into a mainframe environment and on stand-alone x86 servers.

The savings came from the smaller physical footprint, reduced cooling and power needs, and reductions in networking and systems administration work, Barlow said.

Software license costs were also significant. A DB2 server might have been running on a two-core chip, with the license pegged to a per-core cost. But in a virtualized mainframe environment, Nationwide found that 15 to 20 stand-alone servers could run on a single Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), which cut the licensing cost by about half, Barlow said.

"I think it does a great job meeting cost avoidance," said Barlow, of the consolidation on Linux.

Jean Bozman, an analyst at market research firm IDC, said using a mainframe environment this way works for applications that have the greatest affinity for the mainframe. "Every time you bring an application closer to its destination, you get benefits," she said.

IT could also use the help of the business in avoiding costs. One user who works at a large manufacturing company that he asked not to be named said the business doesn't always communicate what it is working on and what that may mean for mainframe capacity planning.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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