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I Am A Mainframer

I am a Mainframe – Elizabeth Joseph

By | November 20, 2019

In today’s episode of the “I Am A Mainframer” podcast, Jeff Bisti sits down with Elizabeth Joseph. Elizabeth is an author, systems engineer, and developer
advocate at IBM working on IBM Z.  Elizabeth tells Jeff about her journey with the Linux on the mainframe, ZOWE,  how young women can get started in the world of IT, and the future of the mainframe.

Jeff Bisti: Hi, my name is Jeff Bisti and I am the host of the I Am A Mainframer Podcast from the Open Mainframe Project. The Open Mainframe Project is a Linux Foundation collaborative project that was put in place to promote the open-source and Linux adoption on the mainframe platform. Today we have with us Elizabeth Joseph, somebody who just appeared like a gift from the heavens earlier this year into our very special Z ecosystem.

I say Z ecosystem both because it’s a good way of just describing the connection of people around Z, but it also happens to be the name of the overall mission and team that we both work on for our day jobs. Welcome to the podcast, Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth Joseph: Thank you and thank you for that great introduction, Jeff. 

Jeff Bisti: I spent all day writing it, so check that off. First off, can you tell us a little bit about what you do on the Z ecosystem team?

Elizabeth Joseph: I like to tell people that if you had asked me a year ago what a mainframe was, I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you a very good technical answer. Because I was working on distributed systems. My background is in Linux systems administration, mostly on x86 machines. I’ve been doing OpenStack and Apache Mesos and Kubernetes, working at startups in San Francisco.

The switch over to mainframes has been quite a change for me. I started at IBM in April, and the idea is that I want to bring that perspective and bring the community that I interact with in distributed systems into the conversation about mainframes. What I found working there was that when people are considering their infrastructure, especially in the Bay Area and at all these startups and these big technology companies here in California, they pretty much look at either on-prem or on the cloud when they’re making infrastructure decisions. It’s all x86.

Jeff Bisti: Obviously you have an extensive Linux background, and what has so far been your opinion or your reaction to how Linux runs in this type of environment on the mainframe?

Elizabeth Joseph: The most striking thing that I realized is that Linux is Linux. There’s porting work to be done because it is a different architecture, but the first time I got a shell on a Linux box running on Z, I couldn’t really tell the difference. I loaded up an IRC client. I showed my buddies on IRC a few CPU output things because that’s cool, right?

Jeff Bisti: Yeah. 

Elizabeth Joseph: Like, “I have a VM on a mainframe guys.” Aside from that, it’s really just the same environment. Of course, from the administrative perspective it’s going to be different. The way you load Linux onto a mainframe is different than you would on an x86 machine. There are all kinds of documentation for that. 

Jeff Bisti: You said something on another fantastic podcast whose name I can’t remember right now, but you were saying it’s just another architecture to deal with. 

Elizabeth Joseph: Right. In the past for fun, I used to have a SPARC64, there blocks in my garage that are not running. Of course, I have a pile of Raspberry Pi’s. I’ve played with alternate architectures before, so a mainframe is just another one but it’s really big and it’s not at my house.

Jeff Bisti: We follow each other on Twitter. I know you just recently posted about how got your Raspberry Pi 4 in, congratulations. I just put in my order a couple of days ago. It always strikes me that the collective culture has had no problem adopting this other alternative architecture, this Raspberry Pi, which is just another type of computer with a non-x86 architecture, that has a non-standard size. What do you think that we can be doing to lower the barrier of entry or perceived barrier of entry to 390x architecture the same way that ARM has?

Elizabeth Joseph: It’s really great what ARM has done. I was in a conversation on Twitter actually the other day, and one of the people I was talking to said, “For ARM I can just get a Raspberry Pi and I can build my stuff. I want a Raspberry Pi for the mainframe.” I was like, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to get a $50 mainframe anytime soon.” It’s just because of how it’s built. It’s really difficult to make that sort of thing happen. 

One of the things I really like is that we have the LinuxONE Community Cloud where people can get just a Linux VM on the mainframe and that’s a really good start, just being able to get people to build their Linux packages at least on the mainframe. Then for generally learning about the mainframe we have Master the Mainframe. I think what I’d really like to see is a path beyond that. We can’t ship everyone a mainframe but there are tons of really great resources. 

Jeff, you’ve put together that Coursera course recently. Then, of course, there’s all the IBM Redbooks and all kinds of stuff that’s out there. As someone who is new to this space, I’ve had a really hard time finding all of those resources. I have a text document with a whole bunch of stuff that I’ve found, and I get all excited when I find a new video series or book, or something else pops up that I think would be really valuable.

Jeff Bisti: Do you think there’s not enough or too much that’s disconnected? Your dream, how would you like to change it? 

Elizabeth Joseph: The first thing is I think it’s mostly just disjointed like it’s hard to find the resources, even though they exist. People spend so much time putting together these Redbooks and the video sessions, and then we can’t find them. The team that I work on at IBM has put together a community site for IBM Z. I’m hoping that that can be our portal where we link out to all these other resources. It was just launched last month, so it’s a very new thing.

Also, I wish we had a second Master the Mainframe program, which was like what you do after you learn all of the basics in Master the Mainframe. Because one of the pieces of feedback that I got, it was actually from the mainframe subreddit was someone said, “Listen, Master, the Mainframe is great for getting started, but then you’re left wanting more.” You go through the challenges and you’re like, “Now I know all the simple things, but where do I go from here?” 

Jeff Bisti: Sounds like a good opportunity to jump on. I want to go back to the idea of the San Francisco startups. Obviously you have a unique perspective into that, whereas I only get to watch Silicon Valley. If you got just a single shot to just influence or just talk to any single group of people that you got to choose and with any single message that you got to choose, what would you like to just drill into their head about the mainframe that they really need to understand?

Elizabeth Joseph: I think the people I’d talk to be would-be leaders of engineering teams. The main point that I’d want to drive home is that you build out these infrastructure projects and you build in a certain amount of time to, say, take Kubernetes and put it in production. One of the things that I’ve found with these infrastructure projects that I’ve worked on is that you have a pretty good idea, you look at the documentation. You look at what other companies are doing. You go to some talks. You learn all about it, and then you put together a timeline of how long this is going to take. Being in technology, as we all know, we all blow past deadlines.

Jeff Bisti: Never. 

Elizabeth Joseph: The one thing that I’ve seen time and time again in these distributed system missing the deadline situations was they either ran into a networking problem or they ran into a storage problem. One of the things that really struck me when I joined the mainframe community is those two things are solved problems. Distributed systems are trying to catch up, and essentially they’re trying to take x86 hardware and make it super-reliable, and make all of the pieces talk to each other, and make storage really fast and reliable and secure. The mainframe already did all that. 

What I would say is that listen, you could actually have a timeline that makes more sense and not have to worry about the storage and the networking and these big things that crop up. The mainframe obviously brings in other challenges. Partially that there’s you have to get the talent to bring in for the really hardcore stuff that’s not just Linux. That’s not nothing.

There are people out there who are learning this stuff, and there are people who are in the job force that can help there. People can learn. One of the things people say is that mainframes are super-hard, and the one thing I’ll say is they’re super different. They’re not hard. It’s really weird going into the green screen and learning that you can’t use your arrow keys because it’ll mess everything up. It’s not actually that hard. You can learn it. Especially if you’re learning the distributed systems, which are legit hard. 

Jeff Bisti: I think a lot of people probably listening to this podcast who have a Linux background, like I know certainly, I came into Linux and I had to basically relearn Linux when it comes to like, okay, well, Linux is an operating system you install, and then you put your stuff on it. It either takes up a full LPAR or a full physical system under my desk or a VM image and whatever type of thing. We’re really moving towards this containerized orchestrated type of thing, which really puts the whole thing on its head. 

What would you say to somebody who has been thinking about it from that single system standpoint up until recently and wants to start getting on board with the new school of thought?

Elizabeth Joseph: It’s definitely a big switch. It’s all about reliability.

Jeff Bisti: Should they say, “I’m going to start by learning Kubernetes?” Should I start by learning about containers? What’s a good place to start? 

Elizabeth Joseph: If you’re looking to get into, I guess, we’d call the cloud-native space, I’d say learning the fundamentals around containers. One of the things that I saw when I was working on Apache Mesos was that a lot of companies didn’t do a good job of deciding what should be cloud-native and what should go in containers, and what should go into different sorts of backends. I think understanding what containers are good for and having a firm grasp on that is a really good place to start. Then you can dig into the specific technologies.

Kubernetes, it’s actually really hard on distributed systems. They’re not easy. Learning about that space before jumping into a technology project with it. Then you can play around. Kubernetes, for example, has a lot of little tools, so you can run Minikube just on your desktop and play around with it. Then you don’t want to boil the ocean. A lot of these projects that I saw companies get into was they’d get so far with a Kubernetes deployment or Apache Mesos deployment, and then they’d say, “I can’t get rid of the mainframe because it has all my stuff on it, and I don’t have a good solution in a distributed system.” 

One of the things I’ve been telling people lately is, “That’s okay.” Your modernization project can stop now and it can be fine. The mainframe can be doing all of the really important work, and you can have your microservices frontend. That didn’t mean you failed in your modernization project. That means you realized that the mainframe has all these great features, it turns out, that you will struggle to replicate in a distributed system. 

Jeff Bisti: Scaling and modernization don’t necessarily mean a complete migration of everything just to say, “It’s the new thing.” 

Elizabeth Joseph: Exactly.

Jeff Bisti: Going back to the whole idea of scale, that’s something that’s so tough to teach to somebody until they’ve run into the problem firsthand. Because they can say, “Well, I wrote this application. It works. I can look at this thing on my machine. Look, 20 of us in the same room can look at this.” You almost sound like a conspiracy theorist saying, “Yes, but eventually your storage will start to become contentious,” and all that. Do you think we need to start educating on just the foundational principles of scale and contention and all that kind of stuff?

Elizabeth Joseph: Yeah. Definitely, because even people who don’t think they’re going to run into that problem, they usually do eventually. They’re working for a small company, or their application isn’t that popular, and they just don’t think about scale usually until it’s too late. 

Jeff Bisti: Is there anything that you would like to relate to other young women looking to get started in the world of IT?

Elizabeth Joseph: Yeah. The first thing, I was actually at a conference yesterday, and I spoke to some women who are interested in getting involved generally in open source. Mostly I want to say, first of all, it’s not as scary or hard as it seems. I think we’ve mystified technology and programming and infrastructure work, so that it feels like we’re all these magical wizards, but we’re not. I’m not actually a genius.

I learned all of this stuff. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it was hard. Also, most of the people I’ve worked with are really nice. We hear these horror stories in technology, especially with women, but for the most part, I haven’t really encountered a lot of that. Sometimes people are weird, but most of the people I’ve worked with are amazing. I really loved joining the mainframe community, because people are so nice, and they all want to tell me their stories. I love stories.

Jeff Bisti: We’ve got plenty.

Elizabeth Joseph: I mentioned to someone I don’t like Reddit like I was scared off of Reddit because of r/Linux years ago, and so I didn’t use it at all. Then I discovered the mainframe community there, and it was actually nice. That’s what made me rejoin Reddit. This is a big deal for me, because I was way no Reddit for so long. Mainframers there, they’re the ones who brought me back. 

Jeff Bisti: We might want to talk to Tom or Ross about just changing a tagline for mainframe, just being like mainframe, good enough to make somebody go back to Reddit. It is 98% a cesspool. There’s a few golden pockets, but 1,000% agree there. I didn’t know ahead of time, honestly, that you were doing work with the Open Mainframe Project, all it completely makes sense now that I think about it. Can you talk a little bit about what your involvement has been with the foundation?

Elizabeth Joseph: Yeah. I went to the Open Mainframe Project mini-summit at the Opensource Summit back in August. That was my first exposure to the Open Mainframe folks because I’ve been really focused on Linux on Z and really that side of things. Open Mainframe Project, they do have a couple of projects for Linux but it’s mostly for z/OS. This was my introduction to the project, and it was really good attending that event because they did an overview of the projects that they’re involved with.

They did a few sessions on Zowe. Zowe is awesome. That’s what I’ve been telling everyone about it. Actually, tomorrow I’m speaking at an event in San Jose where I’m talking about developing for the modern mainframe. About half my talk is about Linux on Z and how you can use all the modern tools that you’re familiar with, Jenkins and Python and all your stuff. Then the second half of my talk is talking about how you can interact with the mainframe through Zowe, which means you can use there’s a GUI that you can use that’s really sharp, through the web UI, and there’s an API, and there’s a CLI that you can run just from your terminal, so you can run commands without using the traditional mainframe terminal. 

Most of my involvement, you would say, is now just being out there evangelizing these new tools that people can use and explaining how they can be used in a DevOps way. Like how using the Zowe API and stuff you can now hook jobs into Jenkins that are running on your mainframe. That’s revolutionary.

Jeff Bisti: Yeah, and you get your arrow keys back again.

Elizabeth Joseph: Yeah. 

Jeff Bisti: The whole thing about the terminal and how it looks and all that stuff, that’s one kind of thing. I heard a lot about Zowe and I saw some screenshots and stuff, and I said, “That’s kind of nice.” It was really just a 30-second glimpse that I saw somebody just banging out a Python script that was making calls to a mainframe, and I was like, “Wait for a second, that means …” It was like the ending of Who Framed Roger Rabbit when they go into Toontown, it was like this is a whole different, we’re in a different world now. I’m glad that you’re one of the people that’s out there pushing out that message because it really needs to resonate.

Elizabeth Joseph: That’s the story that I discovered. We had the z15 launch recently, and they were like, “We do DevOps now.” I was like, “How do you do that?” I learned that’s how we do it. 

Jeff Bisti: You came on and just in time to get involved with a brand new mainframe launch. How exciting was that? 

Elizabeth Joseph: That was pretty cool. I went down. I was in the Silicon Valley office and we live watched the launch event and stuff. It was pretty cool. I still haven’t seen one … 

Jeff Bisti: I’m sorry, go ahead. 

Elizabeth Joseph: … in-person. I still haven’t seen one in-person. I’m going to have to come up to Poughkeepsie or something.

Jeff Bisti: The funny thing is they don’t put the doors on them on the test floor because they’re afraid that we’ll scratch them. We have z15s but it’s just the inside guts. You did a really great writeup on the community, and people can find that, well, there’ll probably be links in the show notes or off your Twitter or whatever, but about just what the parts are. Because it’s a revolutionarily, that’s not even a word, radically different mainframe than the ones we’ve put out before. It looks different. It’s shaped differently. The parts inside are formatted slightly differently. What made you want to write that breakdown of it?

Elizabeth Joseph: Part of that, so this is a post that’s up on IBM Developer. We have all these really fancy shots from marketing, like pictures of the inside of the mainframe. I put together this blog post of just screenshots. Then one of them is a giant heat sink, and I just thought it looked cool. The purpose of this post was, as I said, a year ago I didn’t know what a mainframe was, so if you had shown me one, I’d be like, “Ooh, I like computers. That’s pretty.” 

Opening it up and poking around inside, like me as a technologist who loves infrastructure, that was something that was really cool for me. Because I would be like, “Okay, those are the drawers, and those are all the PCI connections, and that’s where the power is.” Just opening it up and seeing what’s inside and understanding that storage is separate and computing is here, and memory is there. It brought me a greater understanding of what a mainframe is. 

I realized that we didn’t showcase that very much. You can find this information. I did for the z14 when I first started, because I did a similar blog post, or, no, it was a series of tweets I think I did. Like, “Look what’s inside.” That was really popular, so I’m like, “Okay. We’re definitely doing a blog post.” Then there’s a Redbook about all the internal architecture and hardware and everything. There’s lots of really interesting information out there. People weren’t seeing it..

Jeff Bisti: In a world where we’re used to seeing solutions come out there, and you can’t see but I’m air quoting solutions, that it might be a physically deliberate thing, but you peel off the cover and it’s either a stack of Raspberry Pi’s, or a bunch of 1U servers with a Belson box panel on the front of it. It is, I think, important and refreshing to see something where almost every component was built for that machine, which was built for a single purpose. That’s always knocked me back, and I understand why they don’t lead with that, but it’s nice to see, so thank you for putting that together.

Elizabeth Joseph: People seem to appreciate it, so I was really happy about it. I had fun writing it. 

Jeff Bisti: Definitely. Before we bring this to a close, do you have anything you’d like to plug or link or mention?

Elizabeth Joseph: I can’t really think of anything. Mostly, I guess, so the Open Mainframe Project has its community site, and then IBM now we have a community site as well that’s focused more on the IBM side rather than open-source projects. Of course, we do lots of open-source too. We have a community site now that we can probably put in the show notes, where I’ve been blogging about Linux on Z and open source. Just this morning I posted a blog post about Ubuntu 19.10 coming out this week. That’s out there now, and Canonical’s done a ton of support to make it awesome on Z. 

Then also every month the porting team at IBM releases a new list of software that they’ve updated for Z, Linux on Z. I’ve posted a blog post about that too. That’s all on the community site, so we’re just trying to keep people updated and remind them that every month we update Jenkins. 

Jeff Bisti: Yeah. Kind of important. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

Elizabeth Joseph: Thank you for having me.

Jeff Bisti: My name is Jeff Bisti and you’ve been listening to the I Am A Mainframer Podcast, from the Open Mainframe Project. Please click and subscribe, check out the show notes and tell your friends on your social media platforms about the show. We’ll be back with you soon.