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I am a Mainframer: Shashank Motepalli

By | April 22, 2020

In today’s episode of the “I Am A Mainframer” podcast, Steven Dickens sits down with Shashank Motepalli, a Ph.D. student at the Univerity of Toronto and Open Mainframe Project Intern Alumni.  On this podcast, Shashank discusses his journey with the mainframe, the Open Mainframe Intern Program, and where they see the Mainframe going in the future.

Steven Dickens: Hello and welcome to the I am a Mainframer Podcast. My name is Steven Dickens, and I’ll be your host today. I’m joined by Shashank Motepalli, who’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. And we’re going to be talking today about his experiences being on the Mainframe platform. Welcome to the show, Shashank, how are you?

Shashank: Oh, I’m good. Thanks for having me on the show.

Steven Dickens: Yeah, thanks for joining us. Interesting times that we’re recording this. I normally get to record this in the podcast studio in the Poughkeepsie offices of IBM. But I’m, like everybody, working from home today, so thanks for joining us.

Shashank: Yeah, it’s a pleasure.

Steven Dickens: So we normally start these shows off by trying to get a perspective on what’s brought you to the platform? Tell the listeners a little bit about your journey and what you’re doing at the University of Toronto. So if you could just maybe give us a brief introduction to get us going, that’d be fantastic.

Shashank: Yeah, sure. So I’m doing my Ph.D. I’m in my first year of Ph.D. in the electrical and computer engineering group. I work on blockchain systems. I was previously an intern at Open Mainframe Project in the year 2018, and during that time is when I was exposed to blockchain research. This internship has helped me land a Ph.D. opportunity here. So I was very happy with Open Mainframe Project in that way.

Steven Dickens: So tell me a little bit more, obviously you spent some time in 2018 working on the platform. Had you come across the Mainframe before? Did you know anything about the platform before you did the internship project?

Shashank: So what happened, I was involved mostly in the open source projects before I worked as Google Summer of Code Intern in 2017. I was looking for opportunities to work on blockchain and also open source projects. I came across the Open Mainframe Project, which is very suitability for blockchain projects because of the scale and the security it’s offering. So, that was it. And I’ve just experienced it for the first time than through an internship.

Steven Dickens: So I think it will be interesting for a lot of our listeners to maybe understand what your experience was coming to the Mainframe for the first time. I mean a lot of people may have preconceived ideas, but I imagine you came to the platform with fresh eyes. So I’d be interested to understand what that first experience was like and if you could maybe elaborate on that for the listeners.

Shashank: Sure. So when I first heard of Mainframe, I was doing my undergraduate, and I was concerned about whether I would be able to deal with such a big system. It was kind of scary when you read about Mainframe online, which are just meant for the enterprises. I guess I didn’t know that they have free access to Open Mainframe Project and they could use it for a certain period of time. So when I first heard of it, it was like “I don’t know how I can deal with such a big system.” It was exciting, but then I started working on it. The community was very helpful and I got emails back whenever I had some problems within a few hours, which is great and it’s good.

Steven Dickens: So talk me through that sort of first time logging onto the system. What did you find? Was it as scary as you’d imagined or was it simpler than you expected? I think a lot of our listeners have been on the platform for a long time, and there are also people listening to the podcast who’s maybe never been on a Mainframe platform before. So I think always good to capture that sort of that essence of the first experience on the platform. So if you could, logging on, getting an ID, going onto the system for the first time, how did you find all of that?

Shashank: Honestly, so I was using Linux operating system before that and a Windows machine. So it was not much of a different from that. Just a couple of things here and there and, if you wanted to use the extra features, yeah they’re available, but it’s packaged in a very good way, and you won’t notice the difference that it’s a Mainframe system and not a different server.

Steven Dickens: So that’s really interesting because I think there’s a lot of people who maybe see that barrier. Some of us who are on the platform maybe don’t see as much of a barrier. It’s always interesting to hear a new perspective. So Shashank, you mentioned that you are working on blockchain projects. Can you give us an idea of some of the projects you’ve been working on and where you see those going? Because I understand it’s a very emerging space with a lot of people breaking new ground. So I think that’d be interesting for our listeners.

Shashank: Yeah, sure. So the main problem in the blockchain field right now is about the scalability of both public and the private blockchains. So I started looking at this problem of scalability in recent times. During and my internship there, I was looking at the special use case for enterprise blockchains, where the enterprise blockchains were dealing with multiple blockchain systems for different purposes. See there’s it taxation going on one blockchain system, and there’s asset management going on another blockchain system. You want both of them to be linked in some way or the other, and both of them are distributed systems over here. So it’s a big problem and especially since they are enterprise systems, you don’t want any mistakes to happen and the data to be secure, and so that is one issue which I was looking at that and the immediate focus of my research so far has been on the scalability of blockchains.

Steven Dickens: That’s interesting. I mean a lot of people would think, I would imagine, that blockchain is the perfect de-centralized platform and that a scale-out architecture would be a natural fit. Is that what you’re seeing or are you seeing a different dynamic?

Shashank: It’s a perfect system, I would agree, but there are still are problems which have to be solved in the field for that to be used by millions of population. This is the same aspect that I was talking about, you can’t achieve the scalability with the centralized systems. Nobody is promising. So, that’s still an open problem which many people are working on.

Steven Dickens: So if I’m hearing you right, it’s around that scalability, which is obviously something we’ve been wrestling with in the Mainframe community for decades now. Being able to provide that ultimate scale. So where would you see the Mainframe and blockchain kind of fitting together? Do you see a natural fit there?

Shashank: Oh yeah, definitely. So then I speak about enterprise blockchains in specific, this Hyperledger platform, which is also under Linux Foundation umbrella. Their blockchain systems are meant for enterprise-based systems, and these particular things have permissions where you can control who is accessing the system. The main bottleneck there would be machines or different organizations. So right now I see Open Mainframe Project offering, like IBM Cloud and the Mainstream service, that blockchain deployment is easier, it just took me half a day to set up on the IBM systems. So it was easy for me to use a mainframe for blockchain purposes. And one bottleneck is remote. So since this particular bottleneck from the memory and computational prospect is remote, the rest lies with the networking community to come up with the advances there and to improve the scale.

Steven Dickens: So I mean, that’s interesting that you mentioned that. Where do you see your research going forward? Give me a sort of projection, if you could, of where your research is going to naturally finish and what you see the next steps potentially after you’ve finished your studies.

Shashank: Oh sure. So right now I’m looking at the scalability of blockchain in specific. Over time, the goal of my research would be to have public blockchains that are decentralized and also scalable in nature. So that would be one key aspect. I’m trying to bring in-game theory into the picture to design better incentives for actors to act in a better way, in a rational way, in the public blockchain systems. So they should have the least incentive to cheat or act maliciously in a decentralized network. So that is one aspect, and over time I see the blockchain systems to be more adaptable by organizations and government. And even the public blockchain systems to grow as they are promised right now. Creating the whole internet of value thing.

Steven Dickens: That’s interesting and I think I see a lot of interesting trends coming out maybe over the next three years around where we’re going to see that technology emerge. So you were one of our interns on the project back in 2018 we’re just going into the internship program, and our interns and joining us for 2020. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience on the project and maybe how you found the internship program and the work, and what you got from the program?

Shashank: It’s a perfect time to talk about it, because of Coronavirus everywhere. It’s a work from home kind of internship, and most of my meetings are scheduled through Skype. My mentor was Peter. He was working at IBM Research, and he helped me a lot initially setting up all the systems and everything, getting ready for the internship. I had weekly meetings with Peter, we used to talk about how to approach the problems, and it was great moving forward.

Steven Dickens: Could you tell us a little bit more about your project and what your project involved.

Shashank: Okay, sure. My project had eight interns during that year that I interned, and a few of us worked on blockchain systems. So I worked on enabling the distributed transaction on a blockchain system, Hyperledger Fabric in specific. As the enterprises are dealing with multiple block chains, we just want to make sure that they don’t have the problem, to make sure a transaction happening on one system and not happening on the other blockchain system. So for example, which I was discussing right now, this taxation is happening on one chain and the asset management might be happening on another chain. You want to make sure every asset you purchase is taxed without human intervention – that would be ideal. So it’s kind of a transaction shipping system which listens to the transactions on the first chain, processes them, freighters them, and gives out the transactions which are to be sent to particular chains to transform it, and send it.

Steven Dickens: That’s interesting. If you were looking back to where you were at the start of the summer of 2018, what advice would you give to yourself back then now you’ve had the experience? I think it would be interesting for our listeners who are looking to embark on an internship to maybe understand what they should expect and really what good advice and best practice would look like.

Shashank: Honestly, I would say it would be about my coding styles since these are contributing to open source. I felt bad initially that I was not taking the coding standards to the best practices I could have taken to. So that is one thing which I felt I didn’t work on during that time. Apart from that, everything went well.

Steven Dickens: So as you look ahead for the platform, you’ve got a long and successful career ahead of you. Where do you see the Mainframe going maybe over the next three to five years as you look ahead with the big trends that you’ve seen, particularly in the blockchain industry?

Shashank: I see that most of the enterprises in specific, as they’re adopting blockchain technology, they would need computational resources and memory at scale, and Mainframe would be a perfect fit in the different organizations. I see a huge potential for blockchain and Open Mainframe collaboration there.

Steven Dickens: Do you see any specific areas where the Mainframe technology is going to play a key or pivotal role over the next two to three years?

Shashank: As the computational needs of even artificial intelligence and machine learning are exploding each year, and I think because of the huge amount of data and the security requirements at big organizations, I see that one angle as a key trend improving over the next couple of years.

Steven Dickens: That’s interesting. Yeah, I would tend to agree. I think we’ve got some big challenges ahead of us, and I think the platform gives us a way to address some of those challenges. So bringing together, as you say, the interesting developments that are happening with blockchain, with the scalability and versatility of the platform, it’s going to be an interesting partnership. So Shashank, as we look to wrap up, is there any other sort of comments or parting thoughts you would give, bringing your perspective as you’ve newly come to this platform? Is there anything that you would like to maybe share with the listeners that we’ve not covered?

Shashank: No, I think I’m good.

Steven Dickens: You’re good. Well Shashank, this has been fantastic. I think I hope that you stay safe if you’re up in Toronto, and can stay safe in these interesting times. It’s been fantastic to get your perspective. Really interesting to hear about what it meant to be involved in the internship program. It’s always good to speak to our alumni and make sure that they’re progressing in their careers and enjoying things going forward. So thank you very much for your time today.

Shashank: Thank you. Thanks a lot.

Steven Dickens: So you’ve been listening to the I am a Mainframer Podcast. My name’s Steven Dickens, your host, if you’ve liked what you’ve heard today, please click and subscribe. And leave a review in the links below. Thanks very much for your time, and we’ll speak to you soon.