Trends in the Modern, Connected and Secure Z Ecosystem: Ensono’s View
Lisa Dyer and Steven Perva of managed service provider Ensono on why the mainframe is relevant for mission-critical workloads—interoperating with the cloud and attracting the next generation of talent
Lisa Dyer: Sure so over 20 years now I have been building products all kinds of ways for the enterprise. So I've never been interested in kind of the B to C market. I've always been interested in the hard problems that make the world run, and these include digital platforms, web apps, mobile apps, API products, you name it on every imaginable system except for—wait for it—the mainframe. However [laughs] now the odd answer is why is she here talking about mainframe? Well you know I'm a technologist at heart and while technologies evolve around the business cases and the uses that they uniquely intend to solve—and they do it in different ways, different formats, different languages, different architecture—the patterns are very similar if not the same, right? And so it gave me a view that this is a technology that is designed for these use cases, and it does it better than any other system and helps me really learn about those unique capabilities and appreciate them as relative to the other platforms that I've been working with. So I came to Ensono about two and a half years ago to lead the mainframe line of business. We do managed services and we help our clients We kind of do the hard stuff that has to be done around the entire lifecycle: running the jobs, upgrading your stack and all those kinds of things that's non-differentiating for our client-owned business so that our clients can focus o the more differentiated stuff. So that was my path to mainframe.
Reg: Cool. I'll ask you more about Ensono, but first Steven, tell us about yourself. How did you end up in the mainframe?
Steven Perva: Sure. I went to Northern Illinois University and they still teach Assembler, they still teach data structure using COBOL. So those more traditional development paths are still present in IU curriculum. So one day I went to the computer lab and someone was talking about the Master the Mainframe program, which was I believe it was somewhat new at that time. So I said hey, why don't I do this? and so I did. I chopped through the first two challenges within a really brief period of time there and I kind of forgot about it after that. Somebody from IBM Poughkeepsie had contacted me and said hey, we noticed you did the Master the Mainframe thing. Do you want a career in mainframe? And sure enough—what was it?—'ike three or four months later I'm packing up all of my stuff to move to Poughkeepsie and work supporting the engineering system test corp. at IBM So it was kind of a roundabout mechanism for how I started a career in mainframes but I've had a really long history with computing. I've been basically using computers since I could use my fingers to type, and so I kind of had this weird middle of the pack position where I knew a lot about distribution. I knew a lot about just kind of older systems—you know DOS 6 at the time was what I started on and then I started learning the mainframe side of things and that career took me through IBM for almost three years. I moved back to the Chicago area, which is where I was born and raised, and started working for a private company. And then almost literally a year ago today was when I came to Ensono. So in a couple of more weeks it will be my one-year mark, but I've been a systems programmer for over a decade now, believe it or not, and a computer technician since I was 13. Soo that's how my career started.
Reg: Excellent. Well I am pleased to see you so—on the one hand obviously with so many more years to contribute—but having such depth already in your career, that's kind of cool. So I'm going to come back to Lisa now, and Lisa, let's learn a little bit about Ensono itself. I mean it's a name that I think people in the mainframe are becoming more familiar with but probably don't have a really good sense of what you're generally doing, and also what you most specifically are doing that differentiates. So maybe you can give us a sense about how your company came to be and what you're doing today.
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. So Ensono under the name of Ensono didn't exist until six years ago. It was known by a different name and it was very deep bench of mainframe experts, mainframe added services. And then as Ensono came about as a brand, it took the mainframe managed services, skills, and capacity in business that we had and added to it the distributed and the public clouds and we have advisor and consulting in security. So we have a full breadth in our portfolio of capabilities that our addressable market needs and requires to keep their business running and keep it in safe hands when they need it, and in some cases help them innovate, push the envelope on what they can do with all these platforms. Really our goal is to help optimize all of those systems for tomorrow and help clients get to where they need to be in a future proof way where our clients have more than one platform. You know they'll have the mainframe but they'll have others and it's all interconnected. I like to call the mainframe the modern connected and secure z, right—with hybrid Cloud. So that's the reality on the ground and that's how we came about.
Reg: So it's sort of interesting because you know if you take a look at the concept behind cloud, people were trying that right from the very beginning back in the 60s. There's the managed service providers that were trying to really turn the whole space of IT into primarily a service rather than a purchase of some physical hardware and such. It's sort of interesting how we've kind of come full circle and now we're back there and starting to rediscover the cloud—although we have things like AWS and such out there where it really is just buy me a piece of computing that more and more are recognizing, and especially for large organizations they need something more specific and more quantified and negotiated with qualities of service and such. So that said, I'm thinking you could probably could differentiate in a lot of really important ways between what Ensono does and the generic concept of the cloud. Maybe you can give us a sense of Ensono is going above and beyond simplistic cloud concepts.
Lisa: Yeah well as you can imagine, as the platforms and systems have evolved, the complexity has not decreased. In fact, it's tenfold increased, and so the complexity includes things like how do I manage across all of these multiple systems where my data and my apps and my call transfers, all of them? How do I make sure that everything is orchestrated? How do I make sure that errors due to manual work—that's not repeatable? How do we get into a better position where things just hum across all of these tied together platforms as our quote and data run through them? So you know we focus on a lot of that sort of operating and running it, and making it run better and better everyday. Adding automation, adding innovation, helping our clients leverage the best new capabilities that are coming out. I mean every month there seems to be a new capability coming out either from IBM, the ISVs, whomever, and helping clients to adopt it and make it easy to operationalize for them so that they can get the business outcomes from it. That’s all the things that we do and in some cases we help with the skills as it were. We do have clients who have just lost all of their people because, you know, they didn't future proof it, right? We can help there but we also have clients who do have their own stuff. So we work together and we kind of take off the sort of more non-differentiating so they can truly drive their business.
Reg: Cool. Now my impression from how you described your journey is that you actually took on distributed technologies late in the existence of your organization as part of becoming Ensono and really had a vision for the role they were going to play. How do you see that role today and maybe going forward in terms of the mainframe and these other platforms working together for really large enterprises?
Lisa: Yeah, you wouldn't believe the amount of distributed services that are out there—or maybe you would—and you know managing them in your own data centers, having to be in the real estate business where you can just go to the cloud. Some clients perceive cloud being hey, it's not on prem in my data center. I don't have to have them running in my data center and my facilities. I don't have the CapEx cost. I don't have the maintenance on my books. And so you know one definition might be well, it's in the cloud because you've given an OpEx model where somebody else is hosting it and I'm just enjoying the benefits of it and consuming it, and so you know the fact that there's a ton of distributed workloads—x86, Linux, UNIX, what have you, IBM i, mainframe—and then there's the public clouds which we don't obviously host, right? We use Azure, Google and whatnot, we can have that sort of control playing across each to make sure that the serviceability is as automated as we can and we can help optimize things so we can detect on behalf of clients when they might be running compute that's not being used but they're paying for it, right? These are the kinds of things that we can look for to optimize both their cost and their operation and such.
Reg: So it sounds like you have a hybrid, for lack of a better term, model that includes on prem for clients as well as on your own location. I'm curious whether that's an international model or if that's a US-centric model, or how does that all play out?
Lisa: Yeah so our model—we are a global company and we have a global support model and we have data centers globally. What we do is we really meet the client where their needs are, right? We're kind of known for that flexibility and so you can enjoy private cloud on our data centers, or if it's in your data center, we can help manage them in both cases, so we talk about Ensono hosted where it's in our data centers. We own the equipment. We just kind of run it and the clients just consume it vs. clients that for whatever reason still need to maintain their own infrastructure in their own data center or a collo, and we can absolutely provide that too. Then there's a third flavor which is what we call remote infrastructure management, where clients want to own everything from an infrastructure perspective and data center facility perspective, but they still need help doing those services, and of course we have a multi-tenant mainframe cloud if you will, so these are all the service types in which our clients enjoy and need their services to be consumed.
Reg: Cool. Now of course we have barely touched on what I would call the secret sauce of all of this. I like to illustrate it with a cartoon that I've seen in a number of different forms. You see a couple of scientist-looking guys looking at a blackboard. On the left hand side of the blackboard there's just a mess of equations, and on the right side there is a simple, elegant answer. The one scientist is saying to the other I think you need to be more explicit. In the middle it's just this cloud-looking thing that says "then a miracle happens." And in my experience, that miracle is always people, and one of the things as you were talking about beforehand is that you've done some really neat things and visionary things with people, and for me that's important. In my journey back in 2004 I wrote a white paper about the need to get a new generation of people on the mainframe, and I told people if they wanted to plan the future of the mainframe they had four options: They could try to move off the mainframe—and if your workloads really require mainframe qualities of service, that's not going to happen. They could just hire people at the going rate out of the market and take them from their competitors or whatever. So get people who are increasingly super annotated. They could develop their own people and future proof as you've been talking about, hire new people. Or they could work with managed service providers like yourselves, and that's always been a big part of the history of the mainframe enterprise computing is having that option to let somebody else take that journey with you. So given that you guys have been very explicitly taking this journey, if you could tell us about how that has sort of played out.
Lisa: Sure. Do you want me to start and then hand it over to Steven or—?
Lisa: Okay, okay.
Reg: Exactly, exactly.
Lisa: All right and so one of the things I'm really, really excited about myself because I've experienced it in the past life running programs like this is what we call our academy. So we have our mainframe academy, we have our public cloud academy, and we bring people who are either new career pursuers, so they're fresh out of college or they're seeking a completely new career or their second career, right? Folks like vets, second career, you know just people who have been out of the workforce wanting to come back. And our mainframe academy is a really great example of giving the opportunity to anybody who wants it, right? If you want to touch systems and you want to work with code and you want to do these cool things and really run the business of the world, well then the challenge really is well you know, learn it, right? And we have a mainframe academy where we teach everything soup to nuts and so that's a really exciting thing. Companies have it too, you know. The biggest banks have always had their own versions of academy because they saw the wisdom and future proofing in that sense, but I'm starting to see more and more of those kind of activities, which is why I asked Steven last year to put together and inset into our existing curriculum things that have to do with the newer technologies that I'll call ubiquitously known that are system agnostic that really people may have already had experience with, and then they can just apply it in the mainframe world. And then we have mentors who are very, very experienced and they pair up with our mainframe academy folks and we've got interactions with the universities. I think that ground swell of the next-gen Z'ers as I call them is going to grow.
Reg: Finally. I'm really glad to hear that you guys are right in the forefront of doing this. Steven, tell us: What's your experience with being part of that?
Steven: Yeah so having experienced what it's like to on board at IBM and at a previous company in my past, I understand that Ensono has what I believe is the best in class sort of ramp up program for people. We're teaching not only the traditional methods of managing say, z/OS for example, we're teaching the traditional methods that everyone would understand now that does it today the 3270 and using all of those what I call the traditional interfaces. We teach that but my contribution and what Lisa has put in place is to add that modern spin and to really tap into those what she calls the ubiquitous access methods, I'll say. That's things like using VS Code to access a z/OS LPAR or using z/OSMF to manage a system or using Ansible. Ansible is one that we're really known for around here. People have probably seen us talk about Ansible at a variety of different conferences. I think that the edge that we have is we're teaching people who maybe coming straight out of school, but we're also teaching people who may be coming from those cloud or distributed environments. When we show them what's it like to use the traditional interfaces, they're learning classic z/OS management for example, and then they're now learning hey, I have all these skills. I've used Ansible to manage some of those cloud systems that we have or the distributed systems that we have. I didn't realize I could do that here on z/OS as well. And so we teach those, and I developed the curriculum for that. We're finding that that's really lighting a fire not only in the people who have never seen mainframes before, but also the people who have worked in other areas of IT. They’re saying wow, I'm instantly able to be productive. I'm instantly able to provide some value here. And to get to Lisa's point about mentorship, what we're finding in the last half year or whatever, we have had some people coming out just the recent class of our mainframe academy. They’re being placed on their teams and they're finding that they're able to kind of cross pollinate knowledge with people who are veterans in the industry, people who have worked for decades doing the job that they're just starting on, and they're saying look. You're teaching me this really cool concept on how to do something, but here's how I would do that using my weapon of choice if you will. They’re able to then get an early victory to teach somebody with a lot of experience something new, establish some credibility and I think that that is just awesome for these people.
Reg: Cool. Now one of the things you sort of imply that is something I've contended a lot. If you really want to form a computer person as a professional, you know a true professional—and I think one of these centuries computer people will actually be professionals like accountants, lawyers, doctors, and engineers—but I think the journey from here to there is going to be that the stuff that we learn to become a true mainframer is going to stuff that everybody needs to know. I'm curious about your reflections having worked with both the distributed and the mainframe. Which particular skill sets, practices, attitudes do you find relevant to every platform, but especially you can acquire well in a mainframe context?
Steven: Yeah, that's an incredible question. Thank you. What I find really great when we're talking to people—because one of the biggest challenges I feel that we face as an industry is trying to respect the heritage of the mainframe and what is was and what it is. When I teach people I say listen, you have to understand that when we're interacting with distributed systems, sometimes it feels a lot different than when we're interacting with mainframe systems. And what I mean by that is it feels like changes kind of flow a little bit more on our distributed side of things, but when you're interacting with a mainframe, we have this kind of heritage of looking at every change with a quite large magnifying glass to say okay, what are the possible implications of making this change? You're not clicking say, an install wizard and voila, the product shows up at the other end of the pipeline, right?
Steven: You're really doing a series of changes and each one of those changes be it small or little may have some relatively large consequences. So what we're finding is that we're teaching kind of, that respect of the system. So change big or small, you need to really have a very, very large amount of respect for the heritage of that and we're getting a lot of that from the veterans in the industry. We're coming in, we're teaching skills and they're learning, but what I say is you really want to learn the most right now is how they approach these changes, how they approach these systems. They’re approaching them from a—we always say it in the industry, a seven 9s perspective and not a six 9s perspective—
Steven: You know what I mean? There's a very big difference there, and I think that that's one of the biggest skills that people need to learn, especially from mainframers today, is what it means to have a seven 9 mindset, and that's I need to make sure this system is up and available. I need to manage risk at the highest level possible. So I think that that's the biggest takeaway that we're gaining from this cross pollination of mainframe and distributed learning.
Reg: Cool. Well before I go back to Lisa for additional thoughts, maybe Steven if you can just sort of just give us a sense of—as you've taken this journey as you look around and really had to make some decisions yourself about how to form and run as a new generation of mainframers learning from the past but really with the future in mind—what are some of the key takeaways that you've discovered on your own journey?
Steven: Umm so my journey with the mainframes has really been that—if I can impart any bit of wisdom on the people coming through—it's to really respect what the mainframe as a platform is and understand that we're delivering critical business possibilities in the hardware, and knowing that it doesn't always feel that way when we're working in other platforms. So for me my whole journey has really been about learning that piece of things, right? It's learning how to have that idea of resiliency. I've told people a number of times, I've said my hope for the mainframe ten years from now is that it will only be recognizable in the resiliency and the integrity that it offers today, and that the management methods will be very different. We will start to be able to kind of plug and play people from one side of computing to the mainframe side of computing, but the only thing that will be recognizable about mainframes is that they're always up, they're always available, right? The gift and the curse is that they nonstop run and they nonstop do their job. I think that's the one thing that I've learned throughout my journey is that when things work, they don't sometimes get the care and feeding that they need. But we really want to focus on innovation and tomorrow's mainframe so things do need that. It's the classic car paradigm. You can have a car that's 30 years old and if you take care it, it looks incredible, it runs incredibly. But if you don't, it looks like a car that someone kind of parked on the side of the road for two decades, right?
Reg: Hmm, cool. Well thank you so much, Steven; some great insights into your journey. So Lisa let's build on that. Now from your perspective, as you see bright lights like Steven really moving the mainframe ecosystem forward to the future, how do you see that in the context of Ensono and your customers and the whole ecosystem?
Lisa: Well we've had a lot of really good conversations with our clients around the new technologies that have come about that we are using internally to help do your jobs, such as what can we do with Python on the platform and what kind of data analytics can we do without moving data and just doing it in place and making business decisions based on that. And so one of our jobs on my team is to bring that what we call thought leadership to our own clients, because they're thirsty for that. There are so many options out there it's a paradox of choice, and so our job is to explore all these new capabilities in the context of important business use cases and to determine which one is the best fit for what, and then share that with our own clients in the market. And so one of the ways in which we do it is we have our own user group that runs a couple of times a year. We invite our clients in and we have some mind sharing there. We talk about what's coming—and yeah, the next user group is going to talk a little bit about what the new z16 and associated offerings are going to bring to bare—and get our own clients talking about how might this apply to your business, to your use cases, and get that bidirectional conversation going.
Reg: I was going to say that that's so cool because you've already said your emphasis is on things like AI and things that AI enables, and now you've got that on chip AI in the z16. You guys must be really excited about that.
Lisa: Yeah, there's the AI acceleration that enables certain organizations, not all of them, to do things like, hey we can detect fraud before it happens, 100% vs. 10% sampling, and shut that down before the transaction even occurs and save a lot of money. So that's very, very interesting, and then there's of course the quantum safe computing that is coming. So the people stealing data now are happy to sit on it for the next ten years until the quantum goes mainstream and they can crack it. It's really cool that they're bringing that already now. So it's an act of future proofing that is a long-term view of where the technology is evolving, but there are other things with z16 and kind of the associated sort of—I'll call them natively embedded software driven capabilities, like for example how to in a state where you are continuously audit ready, you know just as an example, security being a very big thing for all of our clients for very good reasons. So I'm excited about those things that we can help our own company adopt on behalf of our clients and to help our clients adopt for their own business cases.
Reg: Now you've used the term future proofing and you've referred to being future ready, so I guess this is probably a good opportunity to say I know these are visionary statements. IBM always warns us not to be taking, as you know, fiscal guidance, but given that obviously both of you really are right in the middle of the visioning happening at Ensono and with your clients, maybe if you can just sort of paint a picture of the future as you would like to see it, as you would like Ensono to be part of making it happen with mainframe context especially.
Lisa: I kind of have a similar view as Steven does in that I would love to see the different technologies being used in a way that's fit for purpose, right? Every single machine server device in the world is designed around a certain use case unless they're a commodity and they do some generic things. You know even 80% of the servers on the public cloud are not commodity. They’re custom built, and same thing with the mainframe. It's very custom built for specific needs for the industry, and so what I'd like to see is this overlay of the what do you call it, access methods that anybody can use, anybody can learn such that it becomes kind of blurred, right? I put this data over here because it needs to run a certain vs. this one over here, and it's all interconnected. So I'd like to see that blurring of lines, and I think some of our clients are very heavily invested in the mainframe. They realize the mainframe as a strategic platform is going to continue into the foreseeable future. Then there are clients who say for whatever reason, some of which are good reasons, that this thing shouldn't run on the mainframe because it's not best fit. It can run over here but it still needs to connect to our crown jewels, which is the data and such. Then there's some organizations out there that aren't quite sure what they should do, right, and my vision and my desire is for Ensono to help all of those clients figure out what the future should look like.
Reg: Cool. Well this has been a great conversation but before I end it up, I just want to ping each one of you one more time, starting with Steven. Anything else that has sort of has occurred to you as we've been talking or anything you'd really like to share as people sort of look at on the one hand and sort of the other hand just the future of mainframe and enterprise computing and the workforce.
Steven: Yeah, absolutely. So something I do want to mention is that I feel that's a great attribute of who Ensono is and the integrity that we bring to the industry is that we like to see ourselves—and I believe we walk the walk as trailblazers and innovators in the mainframe space. That’s something that I think is a very distinct attribute of who Ensono is, but what's great is I feel that we're stewards of the industry. We've not just innovating to kind of keep it frittered away and within the walls of Ensono and let our clients kind of reap that reward, right? We've been regular fixtures at recent conferences. We've been at SHARE a number of times. Just recently I was at TechU, and we've been at Ansible'fest and the Ansible Guild that IBM puts on as well. We were just at IBM Z day, z16 Day with the launch of the new z16. We were talking about automation there and I think something that's iconic about Ensono is yes, we want to develop these technologies or these innovative approaches, and yes, we want to kind of prove them out. But when we do prove them out, we're not taking that and saying this is our competitive advantage, because I mean we have a lot of competitive advantages. I feel that we bring that to the industry and we say hey, look. This is how you would use this in your environment. This might not be a good fit for this type of environment because we see a ton of different types of environments, but we do share that knowledge and that innovation I feel with the industry at large, and I think that that's really iconic. We just recently received an award with the IBM z Challenge Coins, the Z Rebel Alliance challenge coins for our innovation with Ansible and Python. That was myself and a couple of my colleagues that got that.
Reg: Congratulations. That's awesome.
Steve: I'm a 2022 IBM Champion for zSystems, and that's something that we take a lot of pride in our interaction with the community at large. So that is one thing I want to mention about Ensono. I feel it's not just a selfish approach to do these things to maintain that advantage, but we're really just sharing at large and that's something really important to us and me personally.
Reg: Awesome. Well thank you so much, Steven. Lisa, if I can give you the last word.
Lisa: Yes, thank you Reg. If you are out there listening to this and you think that this is exciting, if you want to explore, if you want to work on the hard problems and solving hard problems for all the businesses that kind of run the world, there isn't any better place than Ensono to do that. We have in our client base so many of the brand names that you would recognize. Even if you don't recognize Ensono as a brand name, you will know the brands in our client base, and they're fascinating industries. They're trying to do fascinating innovative stuff and if you like that kind of thing, whether you're looking for a new career or a second career or getting into something else, we've got a lot of positions open. So feel free to ping me directly.
Reg: Excellent and where can people reach you?
L: They can reach me on LinkedIn—Lisa Dyer.
Lisa: Or Steven. Either one of us would be happy to chat.
Reg: And I'll have your names spelled out in the transcript for people looking for you.
Lisa: Yeah, right.
Reg: Great. Well it has been a real delight to interview both of you, and I guess as we finish up this podcast, I'll be back with another podcast next month but in the meantime check out the other content on TechChannel. You can also subscribe to their weekly newsletters, webinars, ebooks, solutions directory and more on the subscription page. I'm Reg Harbeck.