Ushering in a New Era for the Mainframe with Open Source
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Ushering in a New Era for the Mainframe with Open Source

John Mertic, Director of Program Management for the Open Mainfr, The Linux Foundation

Say the word ‘mainframe’ around industry veterans and you may get a tone of respect. “It’s what I cut my teeth on” or “I spent many a late night debugging COBOL or FORTRAN code on that beast” are the knee-jerk responses. They look at it with a sense of nostalgia, but also recognize the immense computing power the architecture brings. And they will acknowledge how much of a backbone it is of the heavy transactional computing power keeping the finance, transportation, and other high-transaction industries afloat.

But ask younger, full stack developers and they will give you a beligered look. “Mainframes still exist?” is the more common response, as picking an architecture outside of x86 (and increasingly ARM) seems like an exercise in futility. “The cloud is my architecture and platform” is the common thinking. Any issues of speed and scalability is a simple exercise of throwing more computing hardware at the problem, simply by flipping the switches on their favorite cloud management tool to bring them all the metal they could ever desire.

As all things technology, clear-cut answers hardly ever apply. Those who have lived deep in the mainframe world know that a platform so powerful that one machine could replace an entire datacenter, with higher transactional speeds and security, seems like it should be a solid bet. So what could be holding it back?

The answer, as the members of the growing Open Mainframe Project have found out, is open source hasn’t truly made it to the mainframe yet.

The developer tool chain has gone open in the past 20 years. Success stories abound from building large-scale businesses on top of Linux and Apache-based components, complementing with dynamic, purpose built tools, languages, and infinitely scalable infrastructure components (such as databases, frameworks, and platforms). But these success stories have not made it to the mainframe, where access to hardware and foreign architecture made it a low priority for any open source project. Thus, while this platform has seen some wins in terms of limited open source tool engagement, it has not benefited from the larger open source ecosystem that has boosted platforms like ARM.

There’s been no true champion and vendor-neutral home to advance open source, nor any meaningful engagement strategies with existing open source communities. A link between the mainframe to the growing trend in academia in Linux and open source is also missing. The Open Mainframe Project is stepping in to fill this void.

  ​The answer, as the members of the growing Open Mainframe Project have found out, is open source hasn’t truly made it to the mainframe yet 

Its mission is simple - make Linux on the mainframe a true first-class Linux and open source platform. Make it so that a developer coming to this platform feels right at home, with the same tools and capabilities that they expect from Linux anywhere. Showcase why developers would benefit from this architecture for the most transactional and demanding jobs.


The Open Mainframe project, launched in 2015 at LinuxCon North America, has seen a respectable growth in less than a year with a 50 percent increase in members. The growth is coming from the following categories:

Traditional mainframe vendor businesses looking to form a deeper Linux practice, understanding that building an open source practice is the best path to engage with the larger community.

Academic institutions that have invested in the mainframe education business, but need to find patterns on engaging today’s students who have bootstrapped themselves around open source.

Open source application vendors that see the mainframe as a re-emerging architecture with an important clientele to serve.

IBM has also stepped forward by open sourcing more than 70k lines of code to form an open source project under this model. This project—the Anomaly Detection Engine for Linux Logs (ADE) project, which is available on GitHub, has already seen great engagement with several contributed fixes and features in the three months since launch. This is a great model for what the project can do to mobilize the mainframe community.

In addition, the academic community has rallied around the launch of an internship program this spring. This brings together student interest in open source, engagement in the mainframe, and strong mentors from experienced architects and engineers, to help students grow in their abilities and prepare them for industry. This helps those organizations looking to deepen their bench with finding the staff to drive more investment into the architecture.

What comes next?

Open Mainframe Project has put forward some steep goals as it looks to put in place the key open source pieces for success. The organization is focusing on the following:

OpenJDK--for mainframe that opens up a full open source Java stack.

Embracing Docker, by improving the performance on mainframe while at the same time building out Docker Hub content (which already is emerging).

Making the DevOps audience feel at home on the architecture, by porting key monitoring tools to mainframe.

Supporting the efforts of the Hyperledger Project in advancing blockchain technology, by ensuring mainframe is a key supported architecture.

We will also continue to dispel myths around the mainframe to help educate the new generation of CIOs and technology executives on the mainframe becoming a great platform for open source.

Getting  Involved

The project is open for any academic institutions or individuals to participate in at no charge, with corporate sponsorships available.

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