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Job listing of the future: Wanted - IT workers with broad skill sets

Data center denizens will need to have broader knowledge of operating environments, deep expertise in one or two areas.

During the next five years, data center denizens will need to update their skills in ways large and small. One major requirement for the data center worker will be to learn more operating environments, even as he/she continues to be the resident expert in JCL, workload management or CICS, as the case may be.

Over the longer term, more automated systems management products and other tools could well mean fewer entry-level positions. And companies will likely need to reorganize the data center to include more experts who are able to tune performance across different platforms, for instance, and fewer folks that know "everything" about a specific operating system. This could translate into more diverse career paths for data center personnel.

Don't expect too much to change anytime soon, though. "We're going to need a couple of quarters of strong financial performance before people will feel comfortable hiring again," says Rick Nashleanas, principal at Monarch Technology Management LLC in Colorado Springs, Colo. He specializes in recruiting and placing mainframe-experienced personnel.

"I haven't seen an uptick yet," Nashleanas says. "There's nothing that says we're past the worst, and the worst has been going on for quite a while. We need to get the recovery going and then get back to a normal market." He says it will be at least a year before that happens.

Despite the economy, there are some data center changes looming in the not-too-distant future. These changes will inevitably translate into new requirements for the people who work in data centers.

John Phelps, vice president and research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., sees "a movement to consolidate workloads on fewer boxes. Server sprawl is getting out of control" in many organizations, he says. This means that people who know MVS or OS/390 will likely need to bone up on Linux or Unix or Windows.

Within the mainframe itself, Phelps see some key longer-term trends. First is that most vendors, with the key exception of IBM, are heading toward the Intel chip architecture as a way of saving money. Unisys, Bull, Siemens and ICL are all doing this, Phelps says. In this case, it's worth a mainframer's time to start learning about various Intel high-end chip architectures, including Itanium, and the features that will be included in future versions of that family.

For its part, IBM "has no plans" of ditching its current mainframe architecture, Phelps says, despite rumors that suggest IBM will be redesigning its mainframes to be based on its Power chip. "There's still a healthy mainframe business out there, and the only way to keep some differentiation" is for the company to stay with its proprietary chips, he says. That said, though, he does see some movement -- mostly in the arena beyond 16-way multiprocessing. He sees a 24-way or 32-way IBM machine coming, probably during or close to 2004, with the capability of going "much higher."

An IBM spokesman would not respond to Phelps' predictions, citing company policy about not responding to industry speculation.

Phelps also expects IBM to work on lowering the high costs of owning a mainframe. "It's the software" that's really out of whack, cost-wise, Phelps says. "LPAR-based software pricing will be critical in large systems to help control the software costs."

The IBM spokesman said the company has "talked about" workload-based pricing as a future direction but wouldn't offer any specifics.

Another way of lowering software costs is to allow Unix and Linux software to run on the mainframe, which is already happening. One shop going this route is San Jose State University, which is moving all its OS/390 applications to other platforms. The mainframe will then be converted to a pure Linux box, to be used by faculty and students to set up individual "servers."

All of the university's mainframe experts are now in the process of learning Linux.

"We can have all the server resources we need, without having to go out and buy individual machines," explains Rich Sol, senior director of university computing. This approach eliminates the need for individual departments or schools on the university's 23 campuses from having to go out and purchase their own hardware and software.

What this means for the university's data center personnel is more opportunity, Sol says. Of the five people in the university's existing systems group, the three who have supported OS/390 have been sent for Linux classes offered by IBM. (The other two staff members specialize in NT and Unix.)

For the systems people, "their job stays the same, but what they're supporting changes," Sol says. "We're moving in the direction of a network operations center, a one-stop support environment for the university. This essentially saves their careers. We're not losing any staff; we're just retraining people."

>> Click here to read part two of this series, "Growing up, and out"

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