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Mainframe DevOps gets fresh integration option in LzLabs

Most mainframe DevOps tools make open source app delivery pipelines speak mainframe's language, but LzLabs brings mainframe apps to a Linux-based platform without recompilation.

Mainframe DevOps is the thorniest aspect for enterprises that seek to modernize their legacy apps and improve their software development agility, but emerging tools now help usher mainframe apps into the cloud-native fold.

IBM itself, Micro Focus, Oracle and TmaxSoft have marketed mainframe migration products for years. IBM also introduced utilities in December 2018 and February 2019 called Z Open Development and Z Open Unit Test that automate unit tests for mainframe applications.

But where these products either recompile mainframe apps to modernize them or adjust DevOps tools to speak mainframes' language, LzLabs GmbH now claims it can bring mainframe apps, without recompilation, into line with widely used Linux-based DevOps tools, from the Eclipse IDE to Subversion and Git source code repositories to Jenkins CI/CD pipelines. IT ops pros familiar with Linux can also use familiar Linux management tools and techniques to troubleshoot mainframe apps.

"We use a set of compilers and an underlying technology called LLVM, which provides programmers with what they'd be used to developing a conventional application that runs in the Linux realm," said Mark Cresswell, CEO of LzLabs. "However, you've got your Jenkins system set up; we wouldn't need to do anything different or unusual to participate within that."

Swisscom mainframe shutdown
Werner Pfaffli, a mainframe engineer at Swisscom, pictured with the company's mainframe systems in 1990 (1), shut down the company's last mainframe in 2019 (2).

Swisscom moves legacy apps to Linux, launches mainframe as a service

LzLabs was founded in 2015, but emerged with its first enterprise customer this week. Swiss telecom giant Swisscom embarked on a multiyear project in 2016 to modernize the mainframe applications that run its fixed-number telephony system. The first versions of these apps were deployed in 1974, and no one in the organization remained that could rewrite or recompile them. The apps used 2500 MIPS of mainframe hardware processing and stored data in a 2.5 TB database.

"We were looking for a solution which allowed us to migrate the entire mainframe workload without doing any recompiling," said Markus Tschumper, head of general IT services for the company, based in Zurich. LzLabs approached Swisscom with its then-new product in late 2016, and the company began a proof of concept in 2017.

Then came some growing pains for both companies as the project progressed.

"We made some modifications to the applications for rehosting which were not reflected in early versions of LzLabs' COBOL and PL/I compilers," Tschumper said. "However, the LzLabs team fixed this immediately, and these features were supported in production."

Within Swisscom, human cultural change was even tougher than solving the mainframe migration problem.

"People were afraid," Tschumper said. "Nobody wants to change apps that are securely and smoothly running on mainframe, and the core mainframe operations team saw no need to go away from it, from a technical perspective."

However, it's no secret that mainframe hardware is expensive. Tschumper didn't cite specific numbers, but said Swisscom has reduced the cost to manage mainframe apps by 50% since it redeployed them with LzLabs in production in March 2019 and decommissioned its IBM mainframe hardware. And soon enough, employees with mainframe operations skills will be as hard to come by as mainframe programmers.

More mainframe DevOps efforts connect with Jenkins

Swisscom doesn't change its mainframe apps enough to warrant a mainframe DevOps approach, but the team has already swapped out relatively esoteric mainframe management software, such as a DB2 database connector, for more common, less expensive open source tools. This is because LzLabs' compiler translates database calls from the mainframe app to Postgres databases with no modifications to either one.

You have to be ready to test and thoroughly compare the existing environment with the new, and take the time to let people share their concerns.
Markus TschumperHead of general IT services, Swisscom

Based on its experience with mainframe modernization, and a partnership with LzLabs, Swisscom now offers mainframe as a service to its cloud customers, a fresh rival to IBM's Cloud Managed Services for z Systems launched in the same week that IBM rolled out new consumption-based mainframe pricing.

IBM won't stay still as mainframe DevOps takes hold. Z Open Development bundles IBM Dependency Based Build to run Groovy scripts on z/OS, and can incrementally compile and link-edit programs with Jenkins. Work is also under way to link the ChangeMan ZMF mainframe release management utility marketed by Micro Focus with Jenkins.

But IT pros keen on mainframe DevOps should beware the mainframe resistance, Swisscom's Tschumper said.

"They've been hearing [that] the mainframe will be phased out for 20 years," he said. "You have to be ready to test and thoroughly compare the existing environment with the new, and take the time to let people share their concerns."

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