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Allan Zander: I am a Mainframer

By | January 17, 2017

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In our first discussion of our new  “I Am A Mainframer Interview series,” Jeff Frey, retired IBM Fellow and past CTO of IBM’s mainframe platform talks with Allan Zander, CEO of DataKinetics, on the use and the value of Linux on the mainframe platform.

You can hear the full recording and read the transcript of the interview below.

If you’re a mainframe enthusiast or interested in the space, we invite you to check out our new community forum!

Create a profile and post a selfie with your mainframe system, and you will receive an exclusive “I am a Mainframer” t-shirt.

Here is the full transcript:

Jeffrey Frey: This interview is sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project, and as a Linux Foundation collaborative project, the Open Mainframe Project is intended to help create mainframe-focused, open-sourced technical community and to serve as a focal point for the development and use of Enterprise and Linux in a mainframe computing environment.

The goal of the project is to excite Linux and the Linux community around the use of the mainframe, and to foster collaboration across the mainframe community, to develop and exploit shared Linux tool sets, resources and services in a mainframe environment. In addition, the project seeks to involve the participation of academic institutions to help and assist in creating educational programs aimed at developing the next generation of mainframe Linux engineers and developers.

Allan, welcome to you.

Allan Zander: Thank you, Jeff. I appreciate being here. I’ve been looking forward to having this conversation with you.


Jeff Frey: Very good. How about to get us started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about DataKinetics, your role and your team?

Allan Zander: Thanks Jeff. DataKinetics has been around for about 40 years now and we provide many performance and optimization solutions for our customers. Over time, frequently used applications may have some complexities associated with them. One of the things that we really love here about mainframes is when you’re a large company and you have revenue-generating applications that are running on your mainframe that are very heavily transaction oriented, there’s always a cost associated with those transactions. When you produce multiple millions or billions of transactions every day, we like to help our customers manage some of that complexity that creeps into those applications.


We help them manage the cost which makes applications a little bit easier to maintain and this tends to reduce the risk which also makes it easier to start building new applications and new functionality, and adding new things to the mainframe that you have – innovating. That’s very much what DataKinetics is all about, and that’s very much our passion.


Jeff Frey: How would you say DataKinetics supports the mainframe ecosystem? When I was with IBM, there was a lot of focus on bringing attention to the mainframe and its support of an open, truly open, standard Linux environment, and a big part of that is ecosystem.

Allan Zander: In a way, being a part of something, even like what we’re doing today by being a member of the Open Mainframe Project, there’s probably no better time than now for software vendors to create ecosystems in what they’re doing. Together, we can really add a lot of value to the customer because, let’s face it there’s probably less than 5,000 Mainframes on the planet and the people that are using them really have a very high reliance on making sure that they happen. These are technologies that we are working on. This is the area that we think is our niche.

The people that tend to have software companies that are working on them, they tend to love the technology that’s there, and they really enjoy working and collaborating together. We’d like to be part of that ecosystem.


We started something, it might be just over a year now, called the Planet Mainframe Blog, and that was to create a space on the web that was a little bit more vendor neutral, that would give people who might be seeking information about the mainframe, a place to go. It might be a place for other technology partnerships to begin to brew too, and start to understand how you can collaborate and build technologies together.

If we were a bunch of small startup mobile app developers, we’d get together and we’d have hackathons and all that type of stuff that would happen. We would build technologies and create new ideas that came from working like that.

For some reason, the mainframe still has this stigma that as users, developers, consumers of the technology we don’t like to innovate, that we don’t do things, and nothing could be further from the truth. We like to be out there talking about things like the Open Mainframe Project  and supporting the ecosystem, making it more well-known of what’s going on and capable, because we really believe in this so we’re out there doing it with you every step of the way.


Jeff Frey: That’s great. I’m glad you mentioned some of the stigma that’s attached to the mainframe. Historically, the mainframe has its architectural roots back as early as 1964, so I think it’s sometimes perceived as being not modern or not advanced, or archaic in some way. I’m glad to hear that people recognize that it’s a very capable platform. It has some of the most modern innovations of any platform in the world. I still am surprised to some degree about the number of people who aren’t aware of Linux on the mainframe platform, and the qualities of service that the mainframe can give to a Linux environment.

Allan Zander: Me too. The mainframe needs some good marketing partnerships. If there’s anything we should probably look at bringing to the mainframe ecosystem, it’s the people that handle marketing for Rolex or Ferrari or something like that!  A mainframe is great tool for what it is. In this day and age, you can pick the operating system and pick your development regime that you want. Do you want it on-premise, do you want it off-premise? Do you want it with Linux, do you want it without Linux? Do you within a processing facility, do you not? You’ve got way more approaches for what you can probably do with this computing platform than you have for any other computing platform, on top of a bunch of resiliency and stability that has evolved over 40 years of development.


Why would you not want to use something like that when you’re a publicly-traded company dealing with billions of dollars of revenue in each and every day? We live and breathe the technology Jeff, so we get it. It’s such a simple message to bring out, but for some reason … I don’t know, we’re engineers, we’re not marketers.

Jeff Frey: Yes I agree. You’ve touched on the value of the platform, but let me ask you, specifically, how does using the mainframe platform support your specific business goals? How do you utilize the platform?

Allan Zander: It is 100% of our business goals and what we are. DataKinetics is a mainframe company. Our innovation that we have, that we develop, that we use is mainframe oriented. So, whether it’s looking at something that is Linux and how maybe you can help customers that are looking at future application development, and finding ways to simplify some of that development for what they have, we provide them some tools or some expertise, or maybe different ways of coming with an economic business case that they’ve never really thought of before by looking at technology from the point of view of “what is the business outcome that you’re trying to do?” We have the number one and the number two in every major vertical that is pertinent to the mainframe today.

One of our best customers is a VERY large credit card company, and we’re right at the heart of the way that they use rules for fraud detection and fraud algorithms. By using technology like what we have, we were able to give them the facility to implement new rules on the fly that would help them detect fraudulent activity instead of having to run a complete QA cycle. A task that might take them months to do, we got it down, literally, to hours for them to implement.

We really believe it’s all about how can you look at technology and match it to the business value that you have. Usually, believe it or not, the mainframe is a pretty flexible environment, particularly if you start looking at ways that your architectures might be able to embrace something, like Linux running on your mainframe. Now you’ve got some of those more easier-to-find skill sets that are out there than what you might have, which may build things on top of it. We help facilitate a lot of that, so the developments for mainframe and mainframe technologies is all we live and breathe here at DataKinetics.


Jeff Frey: That’s cool. Sometimes, as I said, I’m drawing on some past experience here, with some shops, introducing the value of Linux in the mainframe is difficult, not necessarily because of anything technical, but because of preconceived notions or organizational or even political boundaries within the organization. It sounds like you either don’t have any of those problems or you’ve solved many of them if you had them.

Allan Zander: You know, that’s a great point. I love what you just said there. That’s why we like to start with customers with business value. What are you trying to do? Let’s focus on that outcome and solving the outcome, and not make it about an architectural decision, or don’t worry about how am I going to maintain this, or do I have the people that you need that are involved in this.

When was the last time an IT organization had a bunch of people that were just sitting in a corner going, “Well, whenever you’re ready, here we are”? It doesn’t work that way. Everyone is busy, everyone has too much to do. No one can really get what they need to get done during the day, but yet business moves on, and that’s the reality of what we have.

Think about those business goals, and then from there let technology support the business goals. Don’t let technology moderate your business goals.


Jeff Frey: Given all of that, what do you think your biggest challenges or obstacles are in the mainframe environment moving forward?

Allan Zander: In this day, I truly believe a lot of the applications that should be off the mainframe are off the mainframe. What is left on the mainframe today are the applications that are generating revenue for the world’s largest companies in the world. By definition, those applications are complex. The challenges that we have is you’ve got the largest publicly-traded companies in the world literally relying on the mainframe on a daily basis, without fear, to generate them billions of dollars in revenue a day, yet if you’re the largest in the company, by definition you’re the largest, and someone else wants to be the largest, too, so you have to compete. In order to compete, you’ve got to innovate. You’ve got to do things that help you grow, that help differentiate you from the competition, which means you need to makes changes to some of those applications eventually.

I recognize that as a big challenge facing businesses. You want to be able to do that, you want to be able to move your business forward. You have to rely on making some changes to these complex applications that you have, and you need vendors that have been there, done that, got the Tshirt, that have been around and understand the space, that have the customers, that have the resources at their disposal to be able to do that to help get you to where you need to be. As much as I love the ecosystem and as much as I love this space, the number of highly-qualified vendors that is out there is shrinking, but the people that are doing it, who are continuing to make the investments, their skills are growing and, actually, their depth is growing.

If I look at DataKinetics, we’ve grown consecutively over 10% for the past three/four years by being able to focus on what we have and expanding those skill sets to help those customers meet those challenges.

IT itself also moves incredibly quickly. New ideas and new technologies and new concepts and new architectures, even though it already seems like the Cloud and Big Data is old news, were we talking about the Cloud and Big Data four/five years ago even? I’m not even sure we were.


Keeping track of all of that momentum, for a CIO or a CFO to say, “Here’s where we need to be and here’s what we want to do, and how are we going to get there and how are we going to manage these risks associated with it?” I don’t blame our customers at all for taking the time that they do, and being as precise in what they need to do. It is complex and you do need help, and you do need a good set of skills to get you to where you need to be. I don’t think the challenge of finding skill or technology or, “Gee, the mainframe is dead,” is in fact out there. I don’t believe that. I think that’s just marketing hype from distributed companies that are maybe more into the very classic servers and it’s in their advantage to say something like that.

Is a major credit card company suddenly going to upload all of its secure information to the Cloud and run its fraud transaction processing up there? No. How you handle those applications and how you look to move business forward is definitely a challenge, but you know what? Complex applications demand the technical infrastructure to be bullet proof and secure for a reason!


Jeff Frey: You know, the Linux environment, and part of the value I think IBM believes they bring to the Linux environment on the mainframe is that standardization and that flexibility to be able to use the platform in very traditional ways, but also in new ways that hadn’t necessarily traditionally been in use in a mainframe environment. I get this a lot where people are very focused on flexibility and time to market and responsiveness and changing with the rapid changes that are occurring in the business, and you have to have a computer system that is as responsive as the business is.

The one thing I didn’t hear you say as a challenge, especially in the mainframe environment, which some people do allude to is the economics of the platform. I know we’re kind of running out of time here, but I’d like to hear your perspective on whether you think, you must think, that Linux and mainframe in general is a good value economically for what you use it for.

Allan Zander: Absolutely, I do. If where you were going is the economics is, the mainframe is an expensive platform to do, but that is bunk. All you have to do is make some simple Google searches and you’re going to find a ton of research that is well documented that is out there, which will show you emphatically that once you start looking at Linux doing some new devOps regimes on top of something like Linux, and you tie that back to the cost per transaction on top of your mainframe that you have, you are literally running the most economically viable and most stable platform on the planet, period. Don’t take my word for it. Just spend seven minutes on Google, read yourself two or three of the articles that are going to pop up, and if that doesn’t convince you, then you’re drinking the wrong Kool-Aid. I don’t know what to say.

There is a reason why the largest companies in the world that are doing the things that they have continue to use that platform, and continue to expand on it and continue to grow it. It’s because the economics associated with making revenue, when you use a platform like a mainframe, are far superior, still today, than anything else that’s on the market.


Jeff Frey: Let me ask you one last question. As an Open Mainframe Project member, what do you hope to see within the community in the future? Where do you think we can go with this project?

Allan Zander: Sky’s the limit. It’s why we want to be there. I truly believe, despite any stigma that may come with something that has been around for 40 years, it’s to our advantage that it’s been around that long, because right now there actually is no better time in the marketplace for IT to be doing development on top of the server that is handling the system of record for the largest companies in the world, particularly in the finance space where new things are beginning to happen, new paradigms. Look at things like blockchain for example, new payment technologies that might be coming out, ways of handling digital currency transactions and that type of stuff. There has never been a more interesting and exciting time to be in the market, looking at innovation and development in an open, collaborative environment than right now.

Honestly, I think the open mainframe project is going to get together and we’re going to figure out the next Uber that is going to be on the mainframe. I look forward to meeting people in person and collaborating more and more.

Jeff Frey: Well, thank you very much. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you, Allan, and maybe we can meet face-to-face one of the meetings here coming up. With that, I think we’ll close the session. Again, thank you very much for your time.

Allan Zander: My pleasure, Jeff. It was great meeting you.


If you’re a mainframe enthusiast or interested in the space, we invite you to check out our new community forum!

Create a profile and post a selfie with your mainframe system, you will receive an exclusive “I am a Mainframer” t-shirt.