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A New Resource for Open-Source Communities

It’s estimated that around 70% of the world’s Fortune 500 companies use IBM mainframes. Of course this comes as no surprise to mainframers who have long been exposed to these factoids. But for the mainframe to continue to grow—and specifically, to attract the next generation of technologists to the platform—its presence must expand beyond the corporate sphere.

This explains the enthusiasm over the recent news from the Open Mainframe Project. The organization has acquired an IBM z15 through a donation from Broadcom’s Mainframe Software Division, and plans to make the system available for public use in 2023.

A Resource for Open-Source Communities

“We’re super excited,” says John Mertic, director of program management for the Linux Foundation, the parent organization for the Open Mainframe Project. “In the seven years I’ve been involved with this, the number one thing I’d hear is, ‘OK, this mainframe sounds cool. Where can I try one out? Where can I run my code to see if it works on it?'”

Until now, these simple questions lacked realistic answers. Sure, it’s possible for an enterprising young coder to locate a system, squeeze it into his parents’ garage, and get it up and running but that certainly takes some doing. Beyond that, as great a story as that is, it’s also an isolated case. What about the world at large? How can a planet of tech enthusiasts—not just students but adult workers seeking a stable and more rewarding career path—discover and get hands-on with the mainframe?

Mertic says providing that link has been a top priority among Open Mainframe Project board members for at least two years. Now, as the plan is coming into place, he envisions an array of possibilities.

The system’s primary purpose will be to simply serve as a resource for open-source communities.

“It’s not for people to build commercial apps,” Mertic says. “First, we want to make sure that all of our hosted projects are up and going with it. Probably shortly after that we want to start opening it up to any open-source project out there, big or small, and usage of z/OS and Linux. If you’re looking to target the mainframe, this is the spot for you.”

“Once you have a resource like this,” Mertic adds, “the possibilities become a bit endless.”

To be sure, much work remains to make the donated IBM z15 secure and available for online access. Marist College has agreed to host the system at its Poughkeepsie, New York, campus data center, while mainframe specialists from IBM business partner Vicom Infinity are providing consultation. The Open Mainframe Project’s technical advisory council is designing the parameters of system access. Additional funding is also being sought.

“We’re thrilled and fortunate to get the advice and guidance we’ve received every step of the way,” Mertic says. “As far as I know, no one has done anything like this before. I mean, I’ve never bought a mainframe.”

A Collaborative Conference

These are eventful but also challenging times for the Open Mainframe Project. Post-pandemic, Mertic believes that the open-source community, even amidst continued growth, is dealing with frustrations. “In general we’re starting to recognize that there’s significant under-investment in a lot of critical open source areas. Countless maintainers are frustrated and abandoning their projects. So we’re working with the Zowe project, trying to help the project communities evolve themselves to be sustainable for the long-term.”

Much more positive signs for the future were on display in September, when the organization hosted the Open Mainframe Summit event in Philadelphia. This marked the first in-person conference since 2019, but the event actually represented welcome change on multiple fronts. Mertic believes the Summit format is unique compared to other established educational and training-focused mainframe events.

“We’re collaboration-oriented. I think that’s our sweet spot,” he says. “The Summit is very casual. It’s designed for attendees to meet, talk and come up with cool ideas. We had games at all of the tables, and the space we had in Philadelphia was set up perfectly for that. There’s a lot of fun stuff. That lightens the mood, and it also gets people to engage with one another.”

Another thing about the summit that stood out to Mertic were the attendees and speakers themselves. The mainframe world is becoming more reflective of the world as a whole.

“I think we are starting to see a broader, diverse group of people who are contributing. They’re coming from different areas of the world, different backgrounds, nationalities, genders, different everything,” he says, adding that this more diverse group of mainframers is likely contributing to the skyrocketing growth of the Open Mainframe Project’s Mentorship Program. Mertic estimates there were more than 500 applicants for the Summer 2022 session, which more than doubles the total from any previous year.

“Maybe a decade ago you could picture what a mainframer would look like, but I don’t believe that’s the case anymore,” he adds. “It’s a different group of people now, and that’s exciting to see.”