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The need for mainframe work continues amid staff shortages

With all the discussion around digital transformation, cloud and AI, it’s easy to forget the number of legacy systems still around. And within the legacy systems category, mainframe work — managing the hardware and resident software — is something that gets short shrift at some organizations.

The Tax Day systems snafu at the IRS has nudged mainframes out from the shadows, however. It isn’t clear what role, if any, mainframes played in the outage of the IRS’ Direct Pay electronic payment website. Nevertheless, the shutdown brought attention to the tax agency’s aging IT infrastructure, which includes mainframes that run software code developed decades ago.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report identified the IRS Master File system, which maintains data on individual and business tax payers, as among the oldest systems in the federal government. Here’s what GAO had to say about the mainframe work required to upkeep the-50-plus year old application:

“This investment is written in assembly language code — a low-level computer code that is difficult to write and maintain — and operates on an IBM mainframe.”

Court seeks upgrade

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, also has mainframe work to sort out. The agency recently kicked off a $67.5 million case management system project, which will “replace the current IT systems, some of which are 30 years old,” according to Court Services Victoria, which provides administrative services and facilities to courts in the Australian state.

Court Services Victoria in April launched an “expressions of interest” process to develop a short list of potential contractors before issuing a request for proposal. David Ware, CEO of Court Services Victoria, said the courts’ IT systems, while still getting the job done, “are presenting a significant barrier to meeting service expectations and handling growing demand.”

The current case management system runs on a mainframe. The courts replaced the mainframe a couple of years ago, moving the old machine to Sydney to serve as a backup, the Magistrate’s Court annual report noted.

Who will do the mainframe work?

Keeping hardware up to date can be a significant challenge, but it’s not the only issue with mainframe technology. The mainframes currently in production are typically not that old. While a few museum pieces are still in action, most systems are relatively young.

Ken Harper, director and mainframe product leader at Ensono, a cloud and managed services provider based in Chicago, said the oldest system he encounters is the IBM System z9, a line of mainframes that began shipping in 2005. The mainframes typically in production today are current generation machines to those three product generations back, he said. That’s a span of about six years.

The significant issue in Harper’s view is who will be around to support mainframes, particularly in light of Baby Boomers retiring at a steady clip, as noted in this Forbes article. The departure of mainframe technology specialists hurts most on the software side, where technicians are still needed to support Cobol programs and database administrators are needed to maintain tools such as DB2 and IMS, he noted

For customers short on support, Ensono offers mainframe hosting services at its location and will also host a mainframe environment at a client’s site.

Mainframes and their applications have, in some cases, fallen into neglect. With so many other IT priorities, organizations aren’t focusing on legacy gear.

Harper said amid predictions of the mainframe’s demise and talk of migrating off the platform, “people haven’t recognized the fact that the mainframe is part of their infrastructure.”

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