Modern economy literally runs on mainframe systems. When we make a purchase with a card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, that transaction goes through, on average, seven different mainframes spread across at least four different continents across the world. You can’t buy a cup of coffee or a car without mainframe computers being involved. That’s how critical they are to the modern economy.

Mainframes have been around for a very long time, which also means that many of its UIs and technologies still resemble those created back in the 90s. The Open Mainframe Project is trying to bring mainframe technologies to modern developers and vice versa.

Zowe is one such technology that was created for modern developers and users who want to leverage mainframes for modern workloads.

In this episode of Mainframe Matters, Open Mainframe Project Ambassador Joe Winchester sits down with Swapnil Bhartiya to explain how Zowe LTS is helping people get started with mainframes, and what to expect in the LTS V2 release. He explains the dilemma they are having with the mainframe skills gap and why it is so critical to fill these gaps if we are to continue to develop modern technology.

Key highlights from this video interview are:

  • Many people who grew up with Unix or Windows struggle to get started with using mainframes. Zowe’s initiative is to help people get started, and build up the next-generation of mainframers. Winchester discusses what role Zowe plays in the larger ecosystem.
  • The purpose of Zowe is twofold: to attract the next generation of mainframers and to modernize the interface. Winchester goes into detail about this two-pronged approach and why it is important to span the gap of skill and generation.
  • Although we now have cloud-native technologies, the critical components of the modern economy still go through mainframe. Winchester explains how the mainframe is the backbone in the modern world and where it fits into modern architecture.
  • Winchester shares his insights into why there is a need to attract the next generation of mainframers and fill the skill gap.
  • Zowe LTS was first released in 2020 and was grounded on a set of APIs. Winchester explains how they will transition to version 2 and what will still be supported with version 1.
  • Winchester details how long each LTS version is supported and how it works.
  • The key focus of Zowe LTS version 2 is enterprise computing. Winchester discusses the features they have brought in to accommodate running at scale and accommodating that growth. He explains how version 2 will make time to value much quicker and the other benefits.
  • Zowe Chat has just been launched, which aims to integrate chat technology into the Zowe code base. Winchester shares why he feels this has a lot of potential and is something to get excited about.
  • Winchester discusses the adoption they have seen with the Zowe project and what some of the most popular components have been.
  • Winchester explains how they will be participating in the upcoming Open Mainframe Summit, what they are planning, and why it is a must-see for the calendar.
  • Cloud-native technologies are changing at such a rapid pace and it is not yet clear how they will evolve in the future. Winchester explains why it is important for developers to learn mainframe to ensure the continuity of modern technology. He takes the example of COBOL and why there is such a call for more COBOL developers.

Connect with Joe Winchester (Twitter)
Learn more about Open Mainframe Project (LinkedIn, Twitter)

The summary of the show is written by Emily Nicholls.


Here is the automated and unedited transcript of the recording. Please note that the transcript has not been edited or reviewed. 

Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, this is your host Swapnil Bhartiya, and welcome to another episode of Mainframe Matters and today we have with us, Joe Winchester, Open Mainframe Ambassador. Joe, it’s great to have you on the show.

Joe Winchester: Awesome. Happy to be here.

Swapnil Bhartiya: And today we are going to talk about Zowe LTS version two, which is coming out. But before we talk about specifics about this LTS, just quickly tell us, first of all, what is Zowe and what role it plays in the larger ecosystem.

Joe Winchester: So to understand what Zowe is, we want to look at the problem it solves. Zowe works on mainframe computers. Mainframe computers are very large, very powerful computers that are used worldwide by banks, airlines, insurance companies, lot of financial transactions, and they’re the backbone of e-commerce.

And IBM has a system called IBM Z, which is a premier mainframe computer. And one of the problems that customers had before Zowe came along was, first of all, it was a little… it’s a very modern computer, but some of the interfaces to use it and develop it were quite, some have been built in the 1980s, 1990s and stuff. They just hadn’t really kept up with modern tooling.

It was also a closed system, quite proprietary, so there was this ecosystem of vendors trying to interoperate and create a joined up user experience. And Zowe was really created by the Open Mainframe Project which is part of Linux Foundation to create an open computing platform that was more modern and familiar to people who hadn’t grown up with mainframes, grew up perhaps with Unix or Windows, but wanted to start using mainframes.

Swapnil Bhartiya: So I mean, we have had this discussion a couple of times. First of all, mainframe predates even us in some cases. So I think that it’s like a two way approach, one is to not only attract modern developers or talent pool. At the same time revamp or modernize the interface itself, so that those folks, so it’s like both, if I’m not wrong, you have like a two prong approach there.

Joe Winchester: You’re absolutely right. Yeah. So when Zowe started, a lot of very smart people got together, people from the Linux Foundation, people from the founding companies and we call it “all of the old with all of the new”.

So I’ve been involved with lots of projects that have tried to do something modern and shiny and they fail, right, and history is littered with them. To be successful, you have to appeal to the new generation of people who are familiar with other tools, modern computing, but also make sure you don’t leave behind all that great wealth and depth of talent. You know, so today is Tuesday, I’ve already talked to three customers this week. Probably the eldest person I talked to was perhaps in his seventies, hugely experienced working for a bank. I talked to some other customers who some were probably 21 or 22 years old. If you have a product that can span that gap of skill and generation, then you’ve hit the sweet spot. And Zowe’s managed to do that.

Swapnil Bhartiya: No matter how much we like to talk about all those cloud native technologies or Kubernetes and everything else, the fact is the modern economy, the critical pieces still have to go through mainframe, the transactions, you know, mainframe is still kind of heart and soul of modern economy. Is that correct?

Joe Winchester: It is the heart and soul of the modern economy. Yeah. So the analogy I like to tell my children, when they say, “Daddy, what do you do for a job?”, is I say to them, when you go and you buy something contactless with your payment card or they’ll use phones, you know, Apple Pay Google PayNow, by the time that you hold it there and the answer comes back to the store, that’s probably traveled through on average seven different mainframes probably in about four different continents across the world. And as somebody once told me how many miles of fiber optic cable, but quite a lot. So it’s the backbone. You couldn’t book an airline ticket. You couldn’t buy your cup of coffee or buy your car without mainframe computers being involved.

But to answer your question about Kubernetes, the mainframe runs a lot of very modern architectures. It runs Linux. It has a very open computing architecture. It has many distributions of Linux. So it doesn’t just run the software written in the 1970s. It runs software written today as well. And it supports all of the old with all of the new.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. The reason I wanted to ask that question was to, first of all, talk about the importance or significance of mainframe in modern economy, which also means that you also need to attract the latest talent pool to sustain this model, which is backing because otherwise without them, I mean, I talk to a lot of mainframe folks, they’re senior experienced folks. But we do need to attract next generation which sometimes runs after the latest shiny object, whichever it is in the tech field.

Joe Winchester: You’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely bang on with that. There is a problem, a kind of a skill shortage. And I can see it. I talked to companies with 60, 70 year olds. I talked to companies with 20, 30 year olds. There’s this kind of generational gap. It’s like, where are the 40 year olds you know? There’s not that many on the mainframe. Because many of those were perhaps attracted to other platforms at the time. And if you’re a huge bank and you have a bunch of 60, 70 year olds approaching retirement with 40 years of knowledge, that’s a problem for you because if they retire, they have to pass the torch to the younger generation. And Zowe fits into that sweet spot. Yeah.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Now let’s just talk about this release. First of all, tell us, how would you define the LTS release of Zowe? What does it mean? How long do you support it and other stuff about it.

Joe Winchester: Yeah. Awesome. So LTS is an acronym for Long-Term Support release. So Zowe is developed using a sort of Agile principles. We ship every six weeks so we deliver quite fast. We don’t want to do things that have too much of an event horizon because often if you aim and miss, there’s a… you know, you want to fire something small and did it hit the target? And if so, then you can double down.

It’s like planting lots of seeds, right? Some will bloom and some don’t and then you keep on watering them right. So because we change it every six weeks, we want stability, but we also want change. And those are two conundrums and they pull in opposite directions.

So when we first released Zowe version one Long-Term Support, that was March 2020. That was about two years and two months ago. And we grounded upon a set of APIs, application programming interfaces and we said to customers, if you install that in March, even though we’re updating it every six weeks, we’re not going to break you. You won’t lose any data. If any vendors extend that and build apps, and we have 75 different apps that extend Zowe, they will all work. There’s harmony between them. You get that cohesion.

But eventually you get technical debt. You know, you realize that you have to upgrade the code base. You’ve made some poor design decisions or perhaps requirements have come in from outside, where you need to keep up with the latest methodologies around security. So version two Long-Term Support, we’ve reset the clock on another two year window on a new release based upon our version one Long-Term Support. So that’s what version two is. We’ve reset the clock on that.

Version one is still supported but it’s in what’s called maintenance mode. So if any customers have version one, we’re only going to patch that with critical fixes, critical security fixes, but you’ll see no enhancements to version one. That’s what’s now in maintenance mode.

Swapnil Bhartiya: For how long do you support each LTS version offering? You mentioned just one so that gives us a reference, but officially, what is the support? For how long is it supported?

Joe Winchester: The long term support is active for two years plus or minus a couple of months or something like that. There’s always a little bit of flexibility. So for about two years, that’s an active release.

So if somebody installs Zowe version 2.0. In two years time, I’m trying to do the math in my head, two years time, six weeks in two years, how many releases did that give us? That might give us 20 releases yeah? If they install Zowe version 2.0, in two years time, Zowe version 20 will be compatible with version two. None of our programming interfaces will change. And if they install version two and use it and have lots of users and they go straight to our release 2.20 in two years time, we have a binding, we have a sort of agreement that that will be 100% compatible.

And it gives customers confidence that they don’t have to keep upgrading. There’s nothing worse than constantly upgrading your software or you download a new app and the app says, oh, I need a new version of the operating system. You know, we see that with the app store and that, and that’s good in some markets, not good in the mainframe. People want stability.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Now if I ask you, either from your perspective or from the perspective of the community, what are some of the features or benefits that you’re like, hey, these are really cool in this release?

Joe Winchester: For version two? If I could sum it up in two words, I would say… I’ll sum it up in one word, enterprise, enterprise computing. So enterprise and running at scale and running at teams.

So when we first started Zowe version one, we got lots of feedback from customers who started to use it small and then they started to use it bigger and bigger and they ran it at scale. So we introduced lots of features into Zowe version one that tried to accommodate that growth. You know, hundreds of users all sharing the same information. High availability, so Zowe endpoints are always available. More security, security features built in.

And that’s what we really did for version two. So we made it sort of more of an enterprise foundation. So Zowe version two out the box has all of the features to run at scale with all of the security features built in from the ground up. It’s also easier. The time to value is much, much shorter. By the time somebody gets, downloads Zowe from our website, by the time that they’re up and running is much, much shorter, much more simplified to do proof of concepts and all of those. And it’s also much easier to then scale up. So we’ve just been polishing and polishing, like we’ve polished a rock and now the rock is good and we’ve given it to customers.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Of course, since LTS version two is out. And you also talked about you also work on the very Agile manner on the Zowe releases. It’s too early, but if I like, hey, what are the things that are in the kind of pipeline of the project that you are like, hey, this is the next thing that we’re working on, this is really exciting.

Joe Winchester: Oh wow, look into the future. I love questions like this. So we’ve just launched a project called Zowe Chat. And that really excites me because if I think about how I do my day job, I’m right now, I’m sitting at my MacBook and I have two other monitors. I have three monitors. I have email, I have my web browser where we’re doing this from.

I also have a chat client. I happen to use Slack. Microsoft teams is very, very popular. There are other ones, you know, Mattermost and Skype and things like that. So a lot of the form factor now that people use to interact with the mainframe is chat. So people chat and they say, you know what? I want to ask, collaborate on solving a problem. I’m a developer. And I’m not quite sure about something and I type something in a natural language. And that’s something really exciting that we’re just really proud. We’ve just launched Zowe Chat.

So for me, that’s kind of the next, I don’t know, the next form factor for computing, for mainframe computing, is the ability that we can get chat and natural language. So we’re really, really excited about that. That’s something that we’re really looking forward to and we talked to a few customers and they’re really excited as well.

Swapnil Bhartiya: When we talk about open mainframe projects, even if mainframe is quite old, Open Mainframe Project is relatively new in comparison. Can you talk about what kind of adoption you have seen of Zowe project? We also have a very good frame of reference which is LTS version one.

Joe Winchester: Yeah, sure. That’s a great question. So Zowe version one, we’ve been really surprised by how successful it was. One of the components, our most popular component, the command-line interface, we had 130,000 downloads of that.

We have a plugin for Visual Studio Code called the Zowe Explorer. Some people call it the new face of the mainframe. We’ve had about 270,000 downloads of that.

Our website, zowe.org website, across that two year period, we had almost 90,000 visits of that website. And we had 520 different people contribute from the community, which is phenomenal because you know, I’m at IBM and we don’t have that many people working on a single project on its own. So having that collaboration from everywhere, from professionals like myself to students who would join, do internships, was phenomenal to see.

Swapnil Bhartiya: COVID restrictions are kind of slowly, slowly fading out. And we have started to interact in person. I just came back from KubeCon in Spain, which also is kind of segue towards the upcoming Open Mainframe Summit, which will be in person, of course, will be virtual as well in September. Tell us how much you’ll get to see about Zowe at the event. What are you folks planning for the event?

Joe Winchester: So that’s really great. So the Open Mainframe Summit, it actually started two years ago. It started in 2019 but because of the pandemic, the first one was virtual. It was really exciting. There was a real buzz around it. Everybody stayed on for the sessions. We had lots of great panel discussions. The next one was virtual as well. So this is the first time we’ve had a face to face conference.

One of the things we’re very focused on for that conference is we want to get customers coming. So we are lining up some customers. Sometimes it’s hard to get customers to talk about what they’re doing cause they have legal restrictions. We’ll find a way, we’ve started those discussions. So if you’re a customer and you want to find out more about how Zowe works for you, there’ll be other customers there to share some of that with you, either formally through a session or just over a cup of coffee or a pastry or something stronger.

So we’re going to see a lot of that. A lot of software vendors are going to be there. A lot of vendors are signing up to sponsor it. So you’re going to get a great exhibit booth around vendors. You’re going to get subject matter experts from all over the world who are going to be there.

It’s also in person and virtual, it’s a hybrid conference. So I work with developers who are in China, in Asia, perhaps they can’t travel with the cost. Perhaps they might still be somewhere, in Shanghai they’re still actually under strict lockdown, but they’ll be able to join virtually. So we’re going to get that sort of virtual flavor. So it really will be the movers and shakers of the mainframe world are going to be there. It’s an absolute must see for the calendar. Yeah.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. One more question. We touched upon this question earlier, which was more about attracting young developers, modern developers. The point is that I cover all those modern cloud native technologies. The technologies are changing at such a rapid pace.

So first of all, new things keep coming in. And then most technologies are in a very, very early stage. So we don’t even know whether those technologies will be there two years from now. They will merge into something. They will evolve something.

But when we look at this mainframe technology, even if you look at things like COBOL that play a very critical role, that have been around for a while and they will remain for a while. So why developers should not only take interest in these technologies? Because it’s not only good for their own sustainability because their career will rely on the technology which is reliable itself, but at the same time, they will play a role in this modern economy as well.

Joe Winchester: You’re absolutely right. Yeah. I mean, so I work with, they teach, you mentioned COBOL. COBOL I think is still the world’s most popular programming languages in terms of the lines of code. One of the things that we’re very proud of at Zowe in the Open Mainframe Project is there was the COBOL education course.

And during the pandemic, there was a real call and need for more COBOL developers, especially in some US states, I think New Jersey. I think it was Phil Murphy who was the governor of New Jersey, and he said, we need more COBOL developers. Everybody’s relying on their government now and we have a lot of government systems. So COBOL is good. COBOL pays well. I talk to university professors and they say, I teach COBOL and my COBOL students are the highest paid, get the highest paid jobs.

And you’re absolutely right. So I’ve worked with the… Take JavaScript. JavaScript’s a great language. I program, code in JavaScript every day, HTML5. Yeah, I remember libraries like jQuery, right? The internet used to be written in jQuery. It’s not anymore. Now it’s all Angular and React. I don’t really know what the JavaScript libraries will be.

So it’s kind of like, if you want to stay with modern technology, a modern language, you have to be ready for the fact that that might die right? You could have been a great high paid jQuery developer, I’m not bashing jQuery here, there are other JavaScript libraries that people don’t use anymore. So your skills are constantly changing and that’s good. Some people enjoy that, but if you really want to become the best in your craft, learn COBOL right? You will not be… I’m 55, right? If you’re 25 and you want to learn COBOL, in 30 years time you’ll still have a great job with a great company.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Joe, thank you so much for joining me today and not only talk about this LTS version two, but also we talked about a much broader topic of the role of Zowe and mainframe in modern world and why modern developers should invest their time and build career around these technologies. So thank for sharing those insights and as usual, I would love to have you back on the show. Maybe we’ll see each other at the event as well. Thank you.

Joe Winchester: You’re welcome. The pleasure is mine. It was a lot of fun. Thanks.


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