In the Autumn of 1969, a nervous Paul Matthews sat in a government office in Canberra having answered a job ad for a ‘trainee computer operator'. The interviewer's first question: Have you ever seen a computer before?
Matthews ended up being one of a cohort of 40 to use a then revolutionary IBM System/360 mainframe, a Model 20. It had 4K of main memory, two magnetic tape drives and all data was processed via punched cards.
Modern mainframes are unrecognisable from the ones seen in those early days of the technology. The IBM z14, which Big Blue shipped to Australia in October, has up to 32 terabytes of memory and boasts the world’s fastest microprocessor, according to its maker, at 5.2GHz.
But the people that work with the machines, like Matthews, are very much the same.
While mainframes look set to run core processes within Australia's biggest businesses for many years to come, the men and women that keep them running are now "thinking of their stamp collecting" as Matthews jokes, and about to retire.
A skills crisis, feared for a decade or more, is now beginning to bite. And hard.
“There is a missing generation of skilled mainframe blokes and sheilas," Matthews says. "There is a definite skills shortage looming.”
For more than 50 years ‘Big Iron’ has been relied upon to host mission-critical applications for banks, airlines, insurance companies, logistics firms and government.
Australian companies were among the first in the world to order from the IBM System/360 range – Holden, real estate agent LJ Hooker, chemical company ICI and Qantas among them. Although mainframe customer numbers rose and fell over the years, the big end of town has for the most part stuck with the machines.
The latest global BMC mainframe survey of executives and technical leads found 91 per cent of respondents saw the mainframe as a “long term, viable” platform (an increase from the previous year) and fewer (22 per cent down from 36 per cent) were planning to migrate workloads off the platform.
There are 63 mainframes (insourced and outsourced) in Australia and they aren’t going anywhere soon. In the past 12 months alone the Department of Human Services, Australian Taxation Office, Queensland Government, and South Australian Government have all signed, sought or extended major mainframe deals.
According to IBM, the dominant player in the market, its mainframes run 68 per cent of the world’s production workloads, handle 87 per cent of all credit card transactions – meaning “just about everyone has used a mainframe computer at one point or another,” the company says – and are used by 44 of the top 50 banks and 18 of the top 25 retailers.
They are highly dependable (a joke among those that work with them is that ‘uptime is measured in years’), secure and scaleable. They are still able to run programs written in COBOL in the sixties, and some still do.
Despite the mainframe's central and enduring position in the enterprise – or perhaps because of it – new blood is not joining the specialist workforce.
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