LongEx Mainframe Quarterly - August 2011

opinion: The Case for a Fresh Technical Opinion

A few years back I came across a mainframe site that had a way of regularly refreshing the ideas of their systems programming group. This group consisted mainly of permanent staff who had been there for many years, and knew the systems inside out. To inject new ideas and opinions this site used contractors, but not in the usual way. Every year or two, these contractors were replaced. So someone fresh would regularly come and work with their systems.

Mainframe staff have a hard time. The mainframe has undergone many changes over the past few years that they are expected to keep up with. There are regular new software releases that not only need to be installed, but have new functions that may or may not be of benefit.

Anyone with an outsourced mainframe is in a worse position. Their software levels may be up to date, but the chances are that many new features aren't being implemented: either because it's not in the outsourcer's contract, or staff simply don't know about them.

In mainframe systems, there's also a tendency to be wary of new technology. The toleration for any mainframe outage ranges from low to none, a hard ask for mainframe support staff. So it's common to delay the implementation of newly introduced functions for a couple of years to let them settle down before throwing them into production systems. PDSEs are a classic example of why this isn't a bad idea.

This means that today there are probably lots of new features that are available for free, but not used in your systems. These may make things run more efficiently, remove the need for home grown utilities and exits, or even remove the need for other software. I'm always amazed when I see a z/OS sysplex that doesn't use Enhanced Catalog Sharing, or haven't moved their JES2 checkpoint dataset onto their coupling facility: two innovations that are now over a decade old.

But the advantages of a fresh opinion don't stop there. There are many different ways to skin a mainframe cat. With a fresh opinion, you get someone who has taken that cat skin in different ways. For example I was recently at a site that had written their own system in C. Running as a started task, it had become part of the core systems, and as such was doing a whole lot of work. Their programmer had spent a lot of time tuning this system, and squeezing the best performance he could. And it ran very well. I sat down for about six hours, and found areas that would improve performance by 15%. This doesn't mean that I was smarter. I just had a different skill-set and experience, and saw different opportunities.

In the past conferences such as Share were a great way for existing staff to get exposure to new ideas. Presentations about user experiences with new or not-so-new features, and vendors showing how to get more from their products were a gold mine of information. However it can get more difficult to justify the education expenses to send technical staff to these conferences, and they are being scheduled less and less frequently.

Conferences only provide some of the benefit. Having someone else actually looking at your system, and asking "why are you doing this", or "have you thought about doing that" is the real benefit. A fresh pair of eyes looking at your systems.

So having a fresh contractor working at your site can be a great idea. But for most sites this simply isn't viable. Any new hires have to be approved by management and HR departments. If you get this approval, finding a contractor with the skills and experience you need is no easy task. When you do find one, the chances are that you won't want to lose them. For those with outsourced systems, contractors often aren't an option at all.

A consultant is great alternative. But let's face it. The chances are that you won't be able to justify bringing in a consultant merely to do a health check of your system, no matter how good an idea this is.

But what if the consultant is hired to do another project? Then you have that elusive, invaluable fresh technical opinion right there. Funding an extra day or so to let this consultant look around can provide no end of benefits.

Think about a fresh technical opinion.

David Stephens