s2e06: Iron as a service; Iron as a service; Why we’re here; Reader mail 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

I’m still not over the viral meningitis, I think. Well, that combined with doing too much yesterday and being at a conference this morning meant I had to beg off and go home and lie down for a bit in the afternoon. But, I got a bunch of stuff done and even got mildly outraged about some things as well as meeting interesting people at OSCON today. Which is always good. And hey look! I wrote again. That’s me, 9:36pm on Wednesdsay July 22.

1.0 Iron as a service

Two pieces on my bits of glass over the last 24 hours, I can’t remember where I saw them: the first, on mainframes-as-a-service[0] (can they alleviate personnel and budget woes?), and the second on how the mainframe won’t be going away[1] and really, they’re actually good value for money didn’t you know. Both of these were helpfully labelled as Industry Perspectives (and you can probably guess that they are perspectives of the mainframe industry).

There is, I think, the slimmest of slim arguments that mainframes continue to have technical advantages over the commodity computing platforms that have developed over the past thirty odd years. But. It’s slim. And I’d guess that one of the reasons why “most critical workloads in both the public and private sectors continue to run almost exclusively on mainframes” is that they’re *critical workloads* and that leadership are shit-scared of doing anything to break the business. It’s no longer because mainframes are the only platform that those workloads can run on. It’s because entire businesses are reliant on the work that those mainframes do – that in most cases *could* be re-engineered and refactored onto cheaper, more flexible commodity platforms. Compare, for example, the Daily Herald article from the last episode, “The ticking time-bomb at the heart of our big banks’ computer systems”[2] where mainframe systems dating back from the 1960s – when they absolutely made sense because they were the only option! – and the code they run are the ticking time-bomb. Look, here’s a quote from Ronan Lynch of Lafferty Group:

“The banks would like to move to new systems but it would be like trying to change the engines on an aeroplane while it is in flight,” he says. “Because of the need to back up data continuously while processing payments, calculating interest on a daily basis and so on it is almost impossible to stop everything to migrate to a new system.”

He’s not saying that banks *like* using mainframes because they’re the best aeroplane ever made and can go faster and higher and carry more passengers than any other aeroplane. He’s saying banks are terrified because their entire business is on that plane and they can’t get it off.

The strategy mentioned in the rest of the Daily Herald article is that some banks have figured out that no, they can’t stomach the risk of dismantling the plane while their entire business is in it and doing some kind of Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible style in-situ egress/ingress from their creaky old Boeing 737 into a 787 Dreamliner. No, instead what they’re doing is they’re siphoning off bits of their business and their customers and getting them to just leave the goddamn plane and get on a shiny new one. And then one day, maybe, they’ll be able to drive a stake through that terrifying 737 and, I don’t know, lease it to a low-cost airline. (That’s where the metaphor breaks down, I’m afraid).

I mean, really. Explain this to me, mainframe industry advocates. Where are all the new services that are doing gangbusters and are only running mainframes? Because mainframes are so much better and cheaper than commodity computing platforms? Where are they?


[0] Can Mainframe-as-a-Service Alleviate Personnel, Budget Woes? (Industry Perspective)
[1] The Mainframe Lives On: An Industry Perspective
[2] The ticking time-bomb at the heart of our big banks’ computer systems (From Herald Scotland)

2.0 Why we’re here

Allison Randall[0], keynoting this morning at OSCON, read an excerpt of a speech that Dave Packard (the Packard in Hewlett Packard, of which I’m sure a bunch of you have your own Very Special First Hewlett Packard moments – mine was, I think, seeing my first laser printer in my dad’s office at Dundee University in the 80s and that unnervingly crisp 300dpi type) gave in 1960 to managers of the company he co-founded:

I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately. They are able to do something worthwhile— they make a contribution to society (a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental). In the last few years more and more business people have begun to recognize this, have stated it and finally realized this is their true objective. You can look around and still see people who are interested in money and nothing else, but the underlying drives come largely from a desire to do something else— to make a product— to give a service— generally to do something which is of value.


– Packard, David (2013-10-15). The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (Collins Business Essentials)[1] . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The idea of the company as being a way for people accomplish something together  that they can’t do on their own isn’t a new one. The idea that a company’s only reason for existence is to make money isn’t a new one either. I just like the way that Packard talks about this all the way back in 1960 (and that the company he and his partner founded is still around, in a manner of speaking). You can take what he says in a bunch of directions – that “better” companies, the ones that are exposing a deeper truth – whether’s it’s “making a contribution to society” directly or indirectly or, and this is where I’m doing the pattern matching du jour, I can make a connection between “the underlying drive to… make a product… give a service… which is of value.”

Which is just another way of saying that a thing successful / good companies do is, well, figure out and satisfy user needs.

[0] Allison Randal – here be unicorns
[1] The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (Collins Business Essentials)

3.0 Reader mail

Reader Andrew Reisman works for Foreign Affairs magazine[0] of which most recent issue has ROBOTS! as the cover story (and in an example of serendipity, the randomness of the universe or just confirmation bias, Foreign Affairs was just praised by Russell Davies for having sufficiently large and readable type[1]) and writes with news that they’re looking to hire an Associate Publisher[2] in New York.  So, uh, take a look. Andrew seems to think that my readership will shake something loose, so do me a favour and surprise him.

[0] https://www.foreignaffairs.com
[1] Russell Davies: Large affairs
[2] Associate Publisher – Council on Foreign Relations