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Cameron Seay: I am a Mainframer

By | March 29, 2017

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In our third conversation of our “I Am A Mainframer” interview series, Jeffrey Frey talks with Cameron Seay, Lead Principal Investigator for the  LEAD-IT Project and Professor at North Carolina A&T State University,  about mainframe education and his involvement in the Open Mainframe Project Academic Committee.

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

In addition the Open Mainframe project has welcomed eight new academic members, and has announced the focus areas and intern selection for Summer 2017.

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.

Jeffrey Frey: Hello. I’m Jeff Frey. I’m a retired IBM Fellow, and a previous CTO of IBM’s mainframe platform, and also very much a mainframe enthusiast. Today, I’m very pleased to host the “I Am A Mainframer” conversation series, in a conversation with Cameron Seay. He’s with North Carolina A&T University.

This conversation is sponsored by Open Mainframe Project. As a Linux Foundation project, the Open Mainframe Project is intended to create a mainframe-focused open-source technical community, and also intended to serve as a focal point for the deployment and use of Enterprise Linux in a mainframe computing environment. The goal of the project is to excite a Linux community around the use of the mainframe and to foster collaboration across the mainframe community to develop and exploit shared Linux toolsets, resources and services in the mainframe environment. In addition, as we will discuss today, the project seeks to involve the participation of academic institutions to help assist in creating educational programs aimed at developing the mainframe Linux engineers and developers of tomorrow.

So Cameron, welcome. It’s real pleasure to talk with you today.


Cameron Seay: It’s a pleasure for me to be here Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Frey: Cameron, to get started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about North Carolina A&T and the students you work with?

Cameron Seay: I’d be glad to. The name of my institution is North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. We’re in Greensboro, North Carolina. We’re one of the hundred or so historically black colleges and universities. We’re about 11,300 students. We have an engineering focus. I teach in the College of Science and Technology. My department is Computer Assistance Technology and we have degrees in electronics and information technology, and mainframes.

Jeffrey Frey: Wow, great. What are some of the projects you’ve been working on, in and around the use of the mainframe?

Cameron Seay: Sure, so we still, on campus, we have a z9 and I don’t want anybody to snicker when I say z9, ’cause it still works.

Jeffrey Frey: No, we’re gonna fix that.

Cameron Seay: Yeah, well we are in fact working on the acquisition of z13, a business class z13 through an initiative that IBM has for universities, which should happen within the next five or six months. The z9 takes up a lot of my time, and we are very much Linux focused. Most people know the business end of a mainframe, the z/OS type of operations. We have z/OS on our system also, but our focus is Linux on z because we see that as the future of the platform. We have classes in z/VM, LinuxONE, Linux z, Linux on z. One of our major projects is that we are founding a member of the Open Mainframe Project and proudly so. We have numerous projects in that realm. I teach courses in introduction to mainframe, Linux on z, intermediate and advanced courses on mainframe, and its really is the hub of our program.

Jeffrey Frey: Fantastic. You know what? I am always interested, the mainframe to some degree suffers from a reputation of being an old platform and even though its architectural roots are from 1964, I think there are a lot of people that don’t understand just how modern this platform is and how chock-full of technology this platform is. Especially now with Linux. What is the reaction of your students in terms of their enthusiasm, or what’s their initial reaction about mainframe and Linux on the mainframe?

Cameron Seay: Well,  you and IBM have done a lot to dispel that, mainframes are part of our culture, at least in my department. The students take the mainframe courses with a sense of pride knowing that most undergraduates in the country aren’t exposed to those. I start every one of my classes with the video that you and your team made about the design of the mainframe. I say, “Okay, well most of you coming in don’t know anything about mainframe, and what you’ve heard about mainframe is that it’s an old and antiquated technology. I’ve got something I want to show you.” And after they see about 10 or 15 minutes of that video, that dispels that myth completely. I say, without any reservation, that the z13 is the most sophisticated commercial computer on the planet. Nothing comes close to it in terms of what it can do. So it’s just an education piece.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah, no, that’s great.

Cameron Seay: Yeah

Jeffrey Frey: That’s been my experience as well, is that students who have been exposed to this platform, get really excited about this because it’s a classic mix of the great qualities of service and the features of the mainframe in terms of its reliability and security and how robust that platform is, but been infused with open environments like Linux. A lot of people, if they’re unaware about the Linux on the mainframe, think that this is a different variety of Linux or a different version of Linux on the mainframe and somehow it’s different than the Linux people are used to. I think some people are surprised to find out just how standard Linux on the mainframe is. It’s very familiar and people familiar with Linux are learning Linux on any platform, are right at home with Linux on the mainframe.

Cameron Seay: And that’s why I’m so happy. First of all, my students are very enthusiastic about the platform. I don’t think I fully answered your question. They’re very enthusiastic about it and they have a great sense of pride in it and they really enjoy working on the platform.  I’m very, very pleased to be a part of Open Mainframe Project. That is what we’re trying to do, is to show people Linux is Linux, but actually Linux on the mainframe is better. It’s better because you can do more with it, you can scale it. It’s bulletproof. It’s secure. Its performance can’t be touched and it is a great experience to use open-source software on the mainframe and I’m honored to be a part of the project of refining how open-source software works on the mainframe.


Jeffrey Frey: Well, that’s great. So yeah, let’s talk about your involvement with the Open Mainframe Project this year. Tell me a little bit more about what you’re doing there.

Cameron Seay: Sure, so I’m working with the Academic Committee and I’ve taken the lead with John Mertic who is the Executive Director for the project. We are bringing schools into the fold. We have five or six schools now and that number is increasing by the month. One of the things that we’re doing right now is holding a good first course on Linux on the mainframe. So I’m working with the academics and several of the schools are pretty active in Linux on z, for example East Carolina University is very active in Linux on z. Our school is very active in Linux on z and they have expertise that we bring to bear on it. We are working with the colleges to expand the community of schools involved. Also, we have dedicated projects that are forwarded to us by industry. For example, ADP, they have something that they want us to look at. We’re looking at OpenStack, so we’re having some projects with OpenStack. I’ve got a couple of students that are going look at that over the summer. We’re also doing quite a bit with blockchain.

Jeffrey Frey: Fantastic.

Cameron Seay: Yeah, Bitcoin, et cetera.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah, that’s great. I know that a big push, especially with the advent of cloud and more service orientation and service utilities. This is another place where I think the mainframe can really excel because there’s really no better platform in the world for a virtualized environment, where there’s lots of sharing of resources and very efficient virtualization.


Cameron: One of the things that I think is going to greatly help expand the visibility and the acceptance of the platform is that there will be a standard set of tools that are reliable and all behave the same way. For example, OpenStack, Blockchain, things that users use on other platforms. One of the goals of the Open Mainframe Project is to have the behavior of these tools be identical to the behavior on other platforms. Specifically, we have projects with OpenStack and Blockchain that can move this ahead, along with several other open source tools.

Jeffrey Frey: Great.

Cameron Seay: I’m comfortable that we will be successful in that.

Jeffrey Frey: That’s terrific. That’s really important to actively get involved in projects like this, and the Open Mainframe Project is a great place to do this.  How do you go about doing that? Is there an interim program, a mentor program that is the basis of that? How do students get involved in that?

Cameron Seay: Yeah. There is. We have technical consultants for each company and each university. This is the second year that we’ve had a formal internship program. The TSC’s, the technical people, serve as mentors or identify mentors for the students. For example, we had a young man that did his entire internship from Vietnam last summer. A Vietnamese gentleman was attending school in Vietnam and did his whole project in Vietnam and came to Atlanta for the SHARE Conference to demonstrate his project. His English was very good. I asked him how did he learn English. He said he learned English from the internet, never had English class in his life.

We’ve had 29 applications. I think the last count from the project reported where we had 29 internship applications for eight internships. We’ve got projects dedicated to them. All these projects are identified by the companies themselves, that means a technical problem that they’re having. The students are going to work on them under a mentor.


Jeffrey Frey: Wow, that’s great. Let me jump right to a question here related to what we hope to do in the future. I know you’ve given some of that to me with the OpenStack work. Do you have other ideas or other things you’d like to see happen in the community in the future? Are there any specific requests or interests you may have in the open mainframe project you’re taking on for the next year?

Cameron Seay: Well, in general, I would just like to see this used as a vehicle to expand the footprint of Linux among younger students; middle schools, high schools. I do a lot of work with middle schoolers. Linux is a platform that is very accessible to middle schoolers. The fact that it’s on a mainframe is somewhat immaterial to them. This is something that I’ve discussed for a number of years. I have always seen Linux as the perfect place, the perfect entry point for young people to first encounter a mainframe. To them, the fact that the tool they’re using is on a mainframe is transparent. Later, they can learn the implications of the platform that their tool is running on then move to things like Xerox.

It’s real hard to sell a 14 year old on ISPF.  That’s a bit of a challenge. I would like to see more community based…

Jeffrey Frey: It’s hard to sell a 56 year old on that.

Cameron Seay: Agreed. Yeah, agreed. In terms of specificity, we pretty much have a set group of projects that we’re trying to refine. The discussion in the Open  Mainframe Project is: Do we want to flatten the layers of complexity on the projects?  or Do we want to work on integrating those layers to other pieces? I think the answer that we’ve come to is that we want to do both. That process is going on separately with us bringing in more companies and more schools to the project. That’s what we want. We want to expand the base.  My goal is to expand the base.


Jeffrey Frey: Right. This is a great lead into a question I wanted to ask you, which was, for all of the benefits and the robustness of the mainframe and the opportunities there, what on the other side of it … What do you see as the biggest challenges for the mainframe going forward? One thing in particular I wanted to ask you about is, since you have an environment where you have a mainframe environment set up and you host the mainframe services et cetera. There are people that don’t have access to a mainframe and Linux on the mainframe. Is accessibility one of the things you worry about?

Cameron Seay: To a degree, IBM has been very good in providing access. The flexibility of that access is somewhat limited because on the machines that are housed within IBM, one has to use them in certain prescribed way.  For example, we’re trying to obtain a machine here at North Carolina  A& T. We’re trying to promote other schools to pursue obtaining machines because they’re pretty affordable the way IBM goes about it. With the machine here at A&T, it’s going to be, pretty much open. Any project that someone wants to do, as long as educational research in nature, not all competing with IBM revenue generating products, it’s pretty open for that. That is the approach we’re taking in terms of accessibility.

It is a challenge. The challenge remains, changing the mindset about this platform. That remains the challenge. It still an uphill climb. As you know, once the students become familiar with what the platform can do and what it is, then it becomes an easy sell. There’s resistance among academic programs because academics have tunnel vision. They do what they do. One of the challenges IBM’s always faced is, the larger schools, more prestigious schools, they don’t really need to do anything different than what they’re doing. They’ve been very successful in the spaces that they operate in. To ask them to include mainframe, which many of their younger faculty see as obsolete, outdated technology. That remains a challenge. I think that’s the platform’s biggest challenge today.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah. My perspective on this, it might be a little dated, but the educational programs around Linux on the mainframe. I like what you said earlier, which was, instead of jumping into focusing on the mainframe platform itself, you first start with the perspective that Linux is Linux, is Linux. This is fundamentally from a Linux perspective and the tools and the development environments and deployment. As far as the users and programmers and developers are concerned, this platform is just like any other. You don’t even have to focus on the fact that it’s a mainframe.

Cameron Seay: Right.  Go ahead, I’m sorry.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah, no. I always thought that instead of focusing on the minutia of whatever syntactic differences there are, or slight differences in the use of the mainframe. Education on the mainframe should focus on enterprise class computing. What do enterprises need and how can a mainframe provide this? Because of its robustness, because of its availability, because it’s bullet proof. That’s the value of the mainframe, coupled with the Linux environment. It’s two different audiences right? On one hand you want to reassure people that Linux on the mainframe is just like any other Linux platform. On the other side of this, as a platform in terms of its qualities of service and robustness, that’s where you get enterprise, class, bullet proof, reliability, and security. Which is ever more important these days in the environments we run in.

Cameron Seay: Yeah exactly. We’ve tried this approach for years. We have a certain amount of success in that . When I started teaching Linux on the mainframe I just used the mainframe as a vehicle to implement Linux. It was just a way to implement Linux. The focus was Linux.  Students who had no exposure to Linux at all, their first exposure was using Linux as a guest on a mainframe. That’s just how they started their Linux machine. They just type something into the command line and that’s how they started their machine. We’ve got plenty of time for them to find out, as you say, the minutia of what all that stuff means. Right now I need to start my Linux server because I got some web code that I want to write. This is my machine. This is our access.

That has worked. There’s been absolutely no resistance from the students at all. They want to do Linux. They want to do web stuff. They want to do something cool. The concept of the mainframe as the cloud machine, I think is irrefutable. It is the ultimate cloud machine.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah. Well, I tell you, I want to personally thank you for your enthusiasm and support in the mainframe because one way to change hearts and minds is to set the example. You certainly have done that Cameron. We certainly appreciate that.

Cameron Seay: You have to. I’m no more enthusiastic than you are Jeff. As I say, you’re a star among my students. They’re going to be very impressed when I say I had this chat with you. Thank you for having this conversation with me.

Jeffrey Frey: Well, you’re most welcome. It was my pleasure. Anything else you want to add Cameron, before we close it out?

Cameron Seay: No. Just, I’m sorry that you retired from IBM. I’m sure you still have your fingers in a lot of pots there. Tell them, I’m glad they finally realized that they do have this thing called Linux on Z. Tell them not to forget it and that it has a lot of potential.

Jeffrey Frey: Yes.

Cameron Seay: Very impressed with what they’re doing in this space. Very impressed.

Jeffrey Frey: Well great. I’m still around. I’ll look forward to seeing you again and maybe meeting face to face and we can have some more discussions.

Cameron Seay: We will. I look forward to it.

Jeffrey Frey: All right Cameron, thank you very much.

Cameron Seay: Thank you Jeff.

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.