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VM’s Integral Role on the Mainframe

"Sir Marc the Community Builder" Marc Smith looks back on his career and discusses his ongoing involvement with the VM Workshop and the mainframe community

This transcript is edited for clarity.

Reg Harbeck: Hi, I’m Reg Harbeck and I’m here again with my friend and colleague, Marc Smith. And we’re going to sort take a different angle today because a really big part of his journey has been the world of VM, and so I’m going to dig into it and really talk a lot about what’s been happening with VM from the perspective of his journey and his career. So welcome, Marc.

Marc Smith: Hey, how you doing, Reg?

Reg: Great. So maybe if I can start by just rewinding to the beginning of your career, however far back you want to gohigh school, elementary school, whatever—and talk about how you ended up in the world of mainframe.

Marc: My first experience with a computer was in high school, and I think it was an old Olivetti where the instructor was teaching us how to about logic, really. We didn’t do much programming. It was like a very short class. And I remember that the homework was to describe the steps that you have to take to tie your shoe. That was how he tried to teach us logic, how to describe things step by step. When I got to college, I started off as a physics major, but I kind of realized pretty quick that physics wasn’t for me. I just didn’t have the math aptitude that it required. I understood all the concepts, but I couldn’t do any of the proofs. It took me forever. And I jumped ship and changed my major to information systems management—ISM is what they called it back then. I went to Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York. And from there I learned quite a few languages. Matter of fact, when I graduated, I prided myself on knowing seven languages – maybe more. And we worked off of a remote job entry system that was hooked up to the Binghamton mainframe. So there was a connection there in terms of the mainframe. I remember I started working as a proctor for the computer center, and we took a field trip to Binghamton to actually get onto the raised floor, and we got to see the machine and talk to the operators and the folks who did the programming on the machine. So that was pretty cool. So that was my first exposure to the mainframe. Needless to say, I started working in 1979 and after graduation, at IBM I got offered a position in Kingston, New York. It wasn’t on the mainframe, it was on the 8100 system, which was a distributed processing system. Anyway, I was in systems assurance and learned a lot about the processes within IBM there. But finally, VM was starting to build the VM migration aid, and I was looking to find another opportunity within IBM. They said, Hey, look, if you help us write the debug guide for VM migration aid, we’ll then give you a position within the VM organization in Kingston, New York. It was mostly HPO, the high performance option of VM.

Reg: So I’m going to ask you a bunch of technical questions on this one. I really want to take this opportunity to fill in people’s brains with VM because you’ve been right there in the middle of VM and it’s such a special part of the mainframe. I tend to be a little bit of a z/OS or Zed OS-focused person. I love VM—I just haven’t had enough chance to give it attention, so I want to change that with this call. So let’s start with what exactly was the nature of the VM migration initiative? What was IBM trying to achieve? What do customers want? What was the intended versus actual outcome of all of this?

Marc: It’s funny. I’m not a technical guy. I can give you a very high level answer, which is basically the migration aid was the release that would take you to the extended architecture, right?

Reg: So moved from 24 to 31 bits.

Marc: Was it 31 or 64?

Reg: 64 would have been the turn of millennium.

Marc: Okay. 31 bit. So it was the extended architecture, and I did the debug guide for that. And then I moved to HPO, which was the high performance option. Just kind of moving back, trying to answer your question, but it’s difficult. I’ve been out of the loop for several years now. Many years, actually.

Reg: So basically, IBM had really moved VM to the next level, so much so that people who are used to the original VM/SP, which was written as much I guess to get people to move off of VSE and onto MVS as anything else, but it just was so powerful that people started using it for everything. And IBM’s like, okay, so if you’re going to keep using it, we’d better kind of make sure this thing is really high quality, production quality and maybe also a program product as such. And so they kind got ’em to move up to the next level. And so your initiative then that you’re helping document was how to get people to move from the original VM to the high performance VM? Is that about right?

Marc: Well, it’s to the extended architecture, because the high performance option was an add-on to VM/SP – system product… And then, what they ended up doing over time was, the HPO product pretty much went away when the extended architecture was brought in. The HPO as an extension was separately priced as well, but it was a performance option that helped customers’ systems perform even better than they were on VM/SP.

Reg: Okay, got it. So you’re at IBM and you’re helping document that, and you’re immersing yourself in VM and the journey continues?

Marc: Well, I did the debug guide for the migration aid, and then I went over to the HPO project office. We called it the project office, but it was really project management where I had to coordinate for the HPO releases, the various parts of the organizations, their status, bring it to management, put together plans or contingency plans if peoplewere late, work with the various organizations from development—anywhere from development system tests, function tests, all those areas. Even service had to be brought in—publications. So we tried to have it already for if we’re running an early support program and/or for launch for release.

Reg: Now by this time CMS was already a big part of VM, correct? And PROFS and such?

Marc: Oh yeah. When I started with IBM PROFS was just kind of taking hold, as I recall. Because we didn’t have access to it for a while, even after I started working with IBM.

Reg: Now another thing about VM, as I’ve sort of really studied and tried to get to know the history of the mainframe, is the community. The community around VM is so unique and organic and profound. Tell us, how did you start to get involved with that community from a perspective of starting out inside IBM?

Marc: Well actually it took me a long time, because when I was associated with the development organization, unless you were a technical guy doing presentations at SHARE or GUIDE or even WAVV, which existed at the time, you didn’t get out much. After being in the project office around 1989-90, the VM mission moved from Kingston and consolidated into Endicott. The ones who wanted to move or were asked to move moved to Endicott, and we joined the VM/SP group. My first job in Endicott was early support programs for VM/SP, various releases. And so I was able to do that for several years, in which case I moved over to the VM marketing team—and this was all in the Glendale lab, which existed at the time. So I worked for several years there. Was it 1995? My wife, who worked at IBM in a tools group, was laid off, and we ended up in Florida for about 18 months working on OS/2 for the PowerPC.

Reg: Oh, wow.

Marc: And then after that, they rolled that one up and shipped it to shelf, and they moved us all to Austin, which is where I am now. But after about a year here, I was just tired of those itty bitty machines, and I needed to get back to the mainframe world. So a buddy of mine, who many folks may know, Len Diegle, came down to visit me. We had chicken wings, and I said, “Hey, I’m looking for a new position. I’m a free agent.” And a week later he calls me up and says, “Hey, I got a job for you in my new VM/VSE marketing team, and you can work remote” and things of that nature. So I worked for him for many years. Our group was involved in the rollout of Linux on the mainframe—I wasn’t personally, but folks on my team were putting together a marketing plan for it. And after that, I got involved in working with a lot of the business partners who resold the mainframe worldwide and became involved in channel management. And this was all around the mainframe. After a while we were trying to bring out the new machine with both the mainframe on it as well as running Windows. That’s another project that basically got stalled and shipped to shelf. We were just about ready to announce it and they decided they didn’t want to do it for all their infinite wisdom. And at that point, there was another round of layoffs, and I found another position in the Z marketing team. So now I’m not only VM and VSE and z/OS—but mostly around the hardware and then working with the software folks and the operating system folks as well. During that time as I said, I was marketing channel enablement, and, supported by my management, volunteered, I did a lot of work with the Academic Initiative for Z. I went out and spoke to and recruited a few colleges and universities and tried to get them interested—

Reg: And this about 2005?

Marc: Just about—because I think I first met you at a conference.

Reg: Yes, exactly. Because I wrote my white paper about the need to get a new generation on the mainframe in 2004. zNextGen was founded in 2005, Academic Initiative from IBM really caught fire in 2005, and I remember meeting you around then.

Marc: Yeah. Well my thing then was I was also running the Destination Z community. So I was on the team that actually brought it forward, and then I actually managed it until I retired from IBM back in 2012. But we were having a conference here in Austin—[it was a SHARE]—and I was working with all these schools around Texas. I said, “Hey, let’s bring the students to the conference and make them aware of what the mainframe is. Let ’em talk to folks who are in the industry and let’s see what happens”—and see the mainframe, because of course they had a running mainframe at the time that they brought out to the shows. So we brought them along. I had almost 150 students show up—some of ’em from as far away as 150 miles away from a high school and another from Houston Community College, who I actually successfully got to bring in an enterprise computing class that IBM offered them the content and they picked it up. We were a bit restricted, because we did a presentation about the mainframe, and then we had to ask the vendors to come in early from the exhibit hall so that they could meet the students because they didn’t want the students in with the attendees at that time. We finally figured out that that’s shortsighted. Let’s get ’em out there with anybody. Let ’em know how you started, let ’em know that you were an English teacher and how you got involved in mainframe and technology. So that carried on for quite a while. I think they still bring students in, but they’re focused more right now on the college students. And I was more focused on getting high schoolers in who hadn’t made a decision as to where to go yet so that they could be influenced to go to a college that IBM had been working with to teach mainframe topics. So I was a little disappointed that it didn’t stay that way, but hey, at least they’re bringing students in to show them what’s going on and get them excited, hopefully about careers around the mainframe.

Reg: So it’s about 2011-ish at this point. And you’re moving on from IBM to a full-time career as a mainframe community enabler, and VM is sort of all along there. But have you started to dig deep into VM at this point, or is it still sort of coming up in another couple of years after that?

Marc: Well, even to this day, I still go out to the local high schools and pitch my “IT’s best-kept secret” pitch, which I will be giving at the VM workshop this year too, by the way.

Reg: Cool.

Marc: But really, I got involved in the VM workshop, and even after I retired, I said—again, my buddy Glen Doogle—he says, “Hey, you should join us. Help us out. We can use all the help we can get.” And so I started working. I told him, “I’ll come in and I’ll work on communications and marketing,” because they really had nobody, they’re mostly techie people, other than Len who is a marketing guy, but. And so I decided I was going to help ’em out by doing the marketing, the communications out to their attendees and interested parties.

Reg: So the VM workshop—this obviously predates you, and it is obviously something that’s still very much alive and well. Can you give us maybe a quick backgrounder on how the VM workshop came to be?

Marc: Yeah. Well, this friend of mine, this buddy of mine, Glen Doogle keeps coming up, but apparently back in 1977, they started doing these workshops, and they and we do ’em at universities to cut costs. At one time, we were actually offering up dormitories for stay overs, but it’s become onerous since the pandemic to set that up. So we just get blocks of hotels now. But the workshop went from 1977 to about 1999 when it took a sabbatical. I think part of it was people were consolidating. There was always a threat to the mainframe from client/server theories and movements. And so it kind of took a backseat. It was resurrected in 2010, in fact. So I went in 2010—this was, I believe, Ohio State University. My daughter was living in Virginia at the time, in Winchester, Virginia, and I was going to visit her. I said, “Hey, why don’t we take a drive over and we’ll go to the VM workshop?” My presentation, which I’m continuing to use, was on the agenda. So I was over there to pitch how I evangelize the mainframe, basically. And so we went there and after that, that’s when Len said, “well, why don’t you help us out?” It was right after I left IBM. 2012, I picked up the communications mantle for the committee and started working with them.

Reg: Cool. So basically, this is a workshop that’s got roots, goes back to ’77, took about an 11-year sabbatical, and then with your involvement, restarted and is obviously going strong. Now, just to really weave together as many threads as possible, how does this all interact with the Knights of VM? Can you tell us what are the Knights of VM? What’s the background? Because I understand it’s just recently taken another really historic step forward, but let’s take a step backwards. How did that all get started?

Marc: Okay. Well, the current connection with the Knights is one of our members—who is also an IBM Champion, by the way—Dave Jones, had passed away last year. And we had several Knights of VM who are part of the planning committee, and they decided, “Hey, we’re going to do a scholarship award in Dave’s name.” So we’ve started that. It’s contributions only from the VM community—well, anybody can contribute, but we’re looking for folks in the VM community to who want to contribute and honor Dave. And so that’s kind of the connection… well, give me a second, I’ve got my notes up here. The Knights of VM was started back in 1978.

Reg: Wow. And so this is basically just members of the VM community coming together and recognizing somebody who is a massive contributor and deserves to have their contribution recognized in a somewhat permanent way.

Marc: Correct. Correct. And again, every five years, every fifth anniversary of the announcement of VM is when they do this, usually at a SHARE conference. And as we discussed offline, I was thrilled to become a knight—or be knighted, I should say—at the anniversary of VM, at Binghamton, at the VM workshop there.

Reg: So this was 2017 too?

Marc: No, 2022.

Reg: So the 50th anniversary of VM.

Marc: Actually, I’m wearing the polo shirt. Well, you can’t, people on the thing can’t see it… Yeah. So it was 2022, two years ago in Binghamton. What was I going to say? Yeah, just to talk a little bit more about the workshop, it’s really an inexpensive way for people—VMers, VSE, and folks interested in Linux on VM—to get education.

Reg: Now how does this interface with WAVV? I get the sense from your grammar that WAVV might not be regularly operating anymore.

Marc: WAVV has disappeared for many years now.

Reg: W-A-V-V, which was the VM-VSE conference—

Marc: It was World Alliance for VM and VSE: WAVV.

Reg: So they’re gone.

Marc: They’re gone. And the committee—and this was again, before my time on the committee—but the committee decided that they needed to include VSE—because really, other than IBM education, which was disappearing—we needed to supply some education. So typically, we had several folks come over from Boeblingen to do the education for VSE. And even now, since VSE was basically sold off to 21st Century Software and rebranded, [IBM are] a sponsor of the VM workshop—and they send people over to talk about VSE and talk to their clients about the latest innovations that they’re providing on VSE.

Reg: And of course, VSE and VM kind of go together like peanut butter and jelly. But MVS-Zed/OS is sort of the breadwinner on that. And so it’s sort of interesting that history because of the fact that VSE has now moved over to a partner of IBM, but VM for the time being is still alive and well. It is really an awesome hypervisor for Linux. And yet, of course, VM has always had this community involvement. That is one of the key things that’s kept it alive because IBM would prefer to simplify things and just have one major operating system, but the customer base doesn’t let them get away with that. Maybe some additional thoughts you can offer on both the journey that VM has taken through this point and where you see it going next, including with the VM workshop.

Marc: Well, living through the mass exodus in the 1980s and early 1990s from the platform hurt a lot, but it was rewarding to see the resurgence. Really, a lot of it connected to the support of Linux on the mainframe. So being able to take your Linux applications and with very little effort, port them over and run ’em on the mainframe was a big kicker. So now, instead of running those smaller machines with Linux on it, now you can run hundreds of thousands of Linux images on a single machineobviously under VM for a long time. And now I think with the LinuxONE processor, I believe it runs without VM. I think VM is like a hypervisor built in, I guess. Again, I’m not a highly technical guy, so I’m going to get a lot of grief for what I just said, I’m sure.

Reg: Well, and I know that there is some substantial involvement of VM, but I’ll grant you that I couldn’t give a really good technical discussion of the nature of that, either. So now the VM workshop is alive and well. How does that fit in terms of today’s community of VM people where you’ve got the VM knights, including the memorial aspect of it now, you’ve got the VM workshop, you’ve got VM at this moment, still an IBM product and alive and well and back ending so much Linux among other things. What is the state of the VM community culture and ecosystem right now from your perspective?

Marc: Well, the reason I’m still doing this is because I feel a connection to the VM community, and I want to stay connected. Just a shout out to ProTech Training, who I basically consult with part-time, but they’re very willing to bring me to these conferences to stay connected with the community. Of course I try and help them sell education on the mainframe, but I just thank them for bringing me to these events and allowing me to stay connected with the community. The workshop is another avenue to stay connected with the community in terms of the fact that it’s very low cost. To go into my marketing piece here if you don’t mind, right now the early bird special registration is a grand total of $100, and that’s for 2 1/2 days of education on VM, VSE or Linux.

Reg: Okay. So nobody’s making any money off of this. This is just a practically volunteer effort.

Marc: The committee is all volunteers. Some of them are retirees from IBM, some of ’em are partners. And of course there are a couple of IBMers on the committee as well. And it is all volunteer. If you go to the VM workshop website, it’s a .org, so it’s a nonprofit. So we don’t make any money. And that’s one of the reasons why we go to the universities and colleges is because it’s lower cost than trying to find a venue in a hotel or a convention center or anything like that. So this year’s conference, for instance, is at Virginia Commonwealth University, June 20-22, and along with that $100 fee, you get a banquet, you get a lunch and a polo shirt.

Reg: Wow.

Marc: Yeah. So you get a lot of mementos as well as some really good education. We have IBMers coming in to do education on Linux and on VM, of course. And as I said earlier, we’ve got the folks—21st Century Software sends people to talk about VSE. This year we’re doing the award—the Fallen Knights award which we briefly spoke of earlier. And we also we’re reaching out to students to try and get more students involved. Our student rate is $10 for the 2 1/2 days.

Reg: Wow.

Marc: Of course, unless they’re old enough, they don’t get access to the beer or wine during the break.

Reg: Understandable.

Marc: So it’s really a wonderful event, 2 1/2 days. We’ve got some hotel blocks booked. They’re all on the website. If you’re interested, if any of our listeners here are interested, it’s, and they can go there and they can see more about the history of the workshop, register for this year’s conference. We’ve already posted a good portion of the sessions grid out there, so you can see what kind of sessions are available so far—and of course that’s being updated as we get new presentation submissions. And really one of the submissions that we are focused on are user-type presentations. How did you do this? How did you succeed at doing that? And so we really look forward to seeing some presentations from users about how they succeeded or how they got around a problem, or if they have a problem, what to avoid… I think May 25 is the submission deadline for this year’s conference. The end of April is when our early bird rate increases to a grand total of $130 for the 2 1/2 days. And all this information is out there on the website.

Reg: Cool. Go ahead.

Marc: Yeah, I was just going to say, while we’re at it, let me just highlight, for those who might be interested, that the website that talks about the Knights of VM is So if anybody’s interested in seeing more and seeing the entire list of the VM Knights that are out there since its inception, that’s the place to go.

Reg: And this is so cool. You and I were just chatting briefly before we started the recording of it—there is a noticeable overlap between the Knights of VM and the IBM Champions program, just because some of the great contributors to VM happened to, of course, also be great contributors to the System Z or System Zed space generally. And so it’s sort of neat. I mean, you obviously are one of them. Dr. Cameron Seay is also somebody who’s both a knight of VM and Champion, but that designation as a VM Knight is a really special high achievement in one’s career, and the recognition entirely—I mean, you don’t apply for it. It is given to you by your peers. When did you find out that you’d been granted it?

Marc: At Binghamton’s VM workshop—again, in 2022.

Reg: You didn’t see it coming?

Marc: No, I didn’t see it coming. It’s funny because Glen Doogle, who again, his name keeps popping up here, my buddy, he kept giving me, looks. Like “something’s coming, something’s coming.” But they actually announced the Knights at the banquet, and I wasn’t on it, so I didn’t understand why he kept looking at me funny and giving me hugs and stuff. But the next day they realized that I hadn’t planned on going to the following SHARE, which is where they thought they were going to announce it, and so at the closing session for the VM workshop they announced me.

Reg: Oh, okay.

Marc: It was still a thrill. I was on the phone with my daughter and Glen comes running and says, “Marc, you got to come in. You got to come in now.”

Reg: Pretty awesome.

Marc: It was a thrill. It’s something that I never thought I would earn or be recognized for. And again, I was knighted {Sir Marc the Community Builder}. And I think that goes back to all my efforts on Destination Z and then trying to bring in students and all that. And personally, I didn’t think that was something that would necessarily be worthy of the knighthood, but I’m certainly thankful and appreciative that it was.

Reg: Yeah, that is truly awesome. So Marc, I mean this has been outstanding and I really appreciate you taking the time to really—we in the mainframe space don’t always know other parts of the mainframe space as well as we should. VM is such an incredibly important part of the whole journey of the mainframe. So I really appreciate you shedding this light on and helping us appreciate it more. Any final thoughts you have, either about VM or just where VM or the mainframe are going, if you have anything to say about it?

Marc: Yeah, my only closing comment was—again, the community is amazing. I go to conferences and the people I met when I was with IBM—the vendors, some of the vendors—they’d call me out and say, “hey, it’s been a while,” everything like that. And it’s just wonderful. And even some of the clients that I’ve met over the years, the IBM clients. I’m in it for the community. If it wasn’t for the community and how tight we are, I don’t think I’d still be working with ProTech or with the workshop, but I just want to be inclusive. I feel like it keeps me young, keeps me going.

Reg: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Marc. 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, e-books, Solutions Directory, and more on the subscription page. I’m Reg Harbeck.