Authors: John Mertic, Maemalynn Meanor, Jason Perlow
The mainframe is a foundational technology that has powered industries for decades, including government, financial, healthcare, and transportation. With the help of surrounding communities, the technologies built around this platform have paved the way for the emergence of a new set of technologies we see deployed today. Notably, a significant number of mainframe technologies are profoundly embracing open source.
Linux comes to the mainframe
As Linux began to take the world by storm in the 1990s, a small group of mainframe enthusiasts started experimenting with Linux on IBM System 390 (a previously current generation of mainframe hardware). Over the last 20 years, others like Hitachi and Fujitsu also invested in enabling open source and Linux on their mainframe platforms. Linux on mainframe marked its official start on December 18, 1999, with IBM publishing a collection of patches and additions to the Linux 2.2.13 kernel.
The year 2000 brought momentum to Linux on the mainframe. The first true “Linux distribution” for these systems came in early 2000 as a collaboration between Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Think Blue Linux by Millenux in Germany. By October of that year, SUSE became the first vendor-supported Linux Distribution, in the first release of what’s now known as SUSE Enterprise Linux. SUSE’s first s390x distro represented an early example of the mainframe leading the way in the evolution of computing technology.
Today, nine known Linux distributions currently provide an s390x architecture variant: Alpine, ClefOS, Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, OpenSUSE, RHEL, SUSE, and Ubuntu.
The expansion of the mainframe as a platform for Linux continues to be nurtured in the Open Mainframe Project, with key projects outlined below helping Linux on the mainframe continue to be a platform used by Fortune 100 companies worldwide.
- Feilong, which provides an interface between z/VM (the primary hypervisor for mainframe, is directly based on technology and concepts dating back to the 1960s) and modern cloud stack systems such as OpenStack, is jointly developed by IBM, SUSE, and others.
- Tessia is a tool that automates and simplifies the installation, configuration, and testing of Linux systems running on the Z platform.
Developments in COBOL
COBOL, which stands for “Common Business-Oriented Language,” is a compiled, English-like computer programming language developed for use as a business applications language. Its roots go back to the 1950s, and COBOL is still frequently used in many industries for key applications.
The COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020 put high levels of stress on various government services due to the unprecedented number of unemployment applications and other similar needs. This put the spotlight on COBOL, as it was then the predominant technology used for these systems. This also highlighted the perceived lack of talent to support these systems, which have code going back to the 1960s.
The vast COBOL and mainframe communities quickly addressed this need and made several efforts to provide a sustainable home for COBOL.
- Calling all COBOL Programmers Forum – an Open Mainframe Project forum where developers and programmers who would like to volunteer can post their profiles or are available for hire. Whether they are actively looking for employment, retired skilled veterans looking to stay involved, students who have completed COBOL courses, or are professionals wanting to volunteer, the forum offers the opportunity for job seekers to specify their level of expertise and availability to assist. Employers can then connect with these individuals as needed.
- COBOL Technical Forum – a new forum created specifically to address COBOL technical questions in which experienced COBOL programmers monitor activity. The forum allows all programmers to quickly learn new techniques and draw from a broad range of community expertise to address common questions and challenges exacerbated during this unprecedented time.
- Open Source COBOL Training – the Open Mainframe Project Technical Advisory Council has approved hosting a new open source project that will lead collaborative efforts to create training materials on COBOL. The courseware was contributed by IBM based on its work with clients and institutions for higher education and is provided under an open source license.
These initiatives were followed by a formal COBOL Working Group established later in 2020 to address the long-term challenges in building a sustainable COBOL ecosystem.
In early 2021, attention turned to the tooling ecosystem for COBOL developers with the launch of the COBOL Check project. This initiative enables test-driven development (TDD) practices for COBOL by providing a unit testing framework.
Zowe brings together the industry leaders to drive the future development paradigms of the mainframe
Traditionally, organizations have been challenged by integrating mainframe applications and data with the other systems that power their enterprise. This integration task further created a talent development challenge, as the paradigms between mainframe and other enterprise computing systems differed enough to make skills not easily transferable.
Broadcom, IBM, and Rocket Software saw this challenge and independently developed various frameworks to close this gap with the mainframe development experience. These include:
- An API Mediation Layer for standardizing the API experience for mainframe applications and services
- A CLI tool that could be run on a developer’s laptop or other non-mainframe systems and used for DevOps tooling integration.
- A Web Desktop interface to make it easier to develop web-based applications that leverage mainframe services and data using common development toolkits.
These components came together in August 2018 in Zowe, which was the first open source project launched that targeted the z/OS operating system (the predominant operating system on mainframe systems). The intention of bringing this project into the vendor-neutral Open Mainframe Project was to establish Zowe as the dominant development and integration tool for mainframe systems, aligning the mainframe community around Zowe.
After Zowe 1.0 was released in February 2019, the project quickly turned to enable a downstream ecosystem of vendor offerings to flourish by establishing the Zowe Conformance Program in August 2019. To date, there are more than 50 Zowe Conformant offerings from 6 different vendors in the mainframe industry.
In addition, Zowe has brought new projects into its scope, with the following incubator projects as of August 2021:
- ZEBRA, which provides re-usable and industry compliant JSON formatted RMF/SMF data records so that many other ISV SW and users can exploit them using open-source SW in many ways (contributed by Vicom Infinity).
- Workflow WiZard helps developers and systems programmers simplify the generation and management of z/OSMF workflows (contributed by BMC).
Zowe boasts more than 300 contributors with more than 34,000 contributions as of August 2021.
Mentorship to support the mainframes of tomorrow
Open Mainframe Project has experienced record growth in contributions this year, with more than 105.31 Million Lines of Code written and over 9,600 commits submitted by Open Mainframe Project communities to date— a 100 percent increase across 20 projects and working groups. These numbers will only increase as Open Mainframe continues to be the cornerstone of governance and innovation for modernizing the mainframe and its path to IoT, Cloud, and Edge Computing.
But the mainframe workforce is aging — in fact, many organizations employ mainframers who half or more of their staff will be eligible for retirement soon. The aging workforce will be a global issue as many schools have shifted from teaching mainframe skills and important languages like COBOL and assembler. Some students don’t even know what a mainframe is or aren’t aware they use one each day.
The mainframe isn’t going away, so that means we need to get younger mainframers on board.
That’s why the Linux Foundation chose to help close the skills gap through education and training. Through the Open Mainframe Project’s Mentorship program, the project offered a hands-on experience in an open source environment with leaders from member companies such as BMC/Compuware, Broadcom, IBM, Micro Focus, Rocket Software, and many others.
This year, the mentorship program welcomed its largest mentee class from around the globe that worked on popular projects such as ATOM, COBOL Programming Course, COBOL Working Group, Mainframe Open Education, Polycephaly, Software Discovery Tool, and Zowe. Through one-on-one conversations, collaborative community meetings, technical development, and accessibility to mainframe technology, Open Mainframe helped lay the groundwork for the next generation of mainframers.
Additionally, as COBOL continues to be on-demand this year, Open Mainframe continued to enhance resources:
- The COBOL Programming Course, which also became the first Open Mainframe project to complete the lifecycle and graduate to become a mature active project, went through an extensive overhaul to provide more detailed content for a better experience and deeper understanding for students and developers looking for a refresher course.
- COBOL Check launched in March to improve the design, understandability, maintainability, and longevity of core business applications. It supports IBM’s mainframe modernization program by enabling restructuring of existing applications of APIs. COBOL Check will complement the COBOL Programming Course and will leverage the support of the COBOL Working Group.
The future is bright for the mainframe
The mainframe has seen a resurgence in the past five years, with the launch of the Open Mainframe Project and the industry coming together in key open source projects in the COBOL, Linux on System Z, and z/OS ecosystems. The Open Mainframe Project hosts more than 20 projects and working groups supported by over 45 organizations as of August 2021, with no signs of slowing anytime soon.
Open Mainframe Summit 2021
The theme of this year’s Open Mainframe Summit expanded beyond the mainframe to highlight influencers with strengths in the areas supporting or leveraging the technology like continuous delivery, edge computing, financial services, and open source. Keynote speakers for the event included Gabriele Columbro, Executive Director of Fintech Open Source Foundation (FINOS); Jason Shepherd, Vice President of Ecosystem at ZEDEDA and Chair of the LF Edge Governing Board; Jono Bacon, a leading community and collaboration speaker and founder of Jono Bacon Consulting; Steve Winslow, Vice President of Compliance and Legal at The Linux Foundation; Tracy Ragan, CEO and Co-Founder of DeployHub and Continuous Delivery Foundation Board Member, and more.
The event also highlighted projects, diversity, and business topics that offered seasoned professionals, developers, students, and leaders an opportunity to share best practices and network with like-minded individuals.
Open Mainframe Summit ended with 219 registered attendees that represented 83 companies. During the conference, there were 167 unique users on the platform, a 77% attendance rate, which is a slight increase when compared to last year.
These efforts are made possible by the dozens of enterprises that support the Open Mainframe Project. To learn how your organization can get involved, click here