Mainframe Propeller Head

Sep 30 2008   5:52PM GMT

Historic IT trends and ideas, and the impact on mainframe operations

Matt Stansberry Matt Stansberry Profile: Matt Stansberry

Exchange Server ActiveSync mainframe columnist Robert Crawford wrote the following column on “Futures of the Past”. The big ideas in IT over the years and how they affected mainframe operations.

Through the years I’ve seen many things touted as “the future of IT.” Some worked out, some didn’t. Here’s a partial list of what I’ve seen come and go. If you don’t see one of your favorites, please post a comment.

1. Structured Programming
The idea of structured programming grew out of frustration with spaghetti code that no-one, not even the guy who wrote it thirty minutes ago, could understand. Structured programming imposed rules including neat IF/THEN/ELSE statements, DO loops, no procedures longer than 30 lines and no, I mean absolutely no, GOTO’s.

I would claim that structured programming is so deeply embedded in everything we do and the new languages we use that it no longer needs a special name. Mark this one a success.

2. Fourth Generation Languages (4GL)
The idea was to create languages so simple your end-users could write their own programs. Some 4GL’s went so far as to be non-procedural, meaning that one didn’t write logic so much as “describe the problem.”

Unfortunately 4GL’s performed poorly because they were interpreted and had to make too many assumptions. Besides, the end-users had better things to do than write their own programs. The end came with the arrival of spreadsheets and GUI report generators.

3. Personal Computers (PC)
In the middle 1980’s the much heralded PC was going to bring processing to the people. Not only were they easier to use, they wrested the power from the IT glass house and put it on everyone’s desk. By everyone I mean mainly executives who used their PC’s for e-mail and the occasional game of Snake. Before long, every Fortune 500 company was going to be running the whole corporation from a bank of PC’s.

Twenty years later we can say the deaths of the mainframe and UNIX were greatly exaggerated. However, I don’t think any of us are ready to relinquish our PC’s with graphical interfaces and powerful tools.

4. Relational Database Management Systems (DBMS)
IBM started it in the 80’s in announcing DB2 on the mainframe. Some of us shook our heads over the extra direct access storage device (DASD) space and processing relational databases required, but these were supposed to be offset by ease of use, easier programming and retrieval. Relational DBMS’ are now ubiquitous on every conceivable platform and have all but routed their hierarchical and network brethren. Definitely a winner here.

5. Client Server
The PC revolution made processing cheap and brought on the idea of distributed computing involving loosely coupled machines asking for information from each other. If done intelligently, data and software could be shared across the enterprise in manageable pieces. In addition, if the network was quick enough the distance between the computers wouldn’t make a difference. IBM also embraced this notion and built powerful distributed capabilities into CICS.

This is another one that’s so deeply embedded in IT that it no longer has a name. The dream is not fully realized as islands of computing and machines that can’t talk to each other, but the hope is still alive in web services (see below).

6. Object-Oriented Programming (OOP)
OOP changed the way we think about programming. Older programs had main procedures that called subroutines, passing static structures and working linearly from top to bottom. Now we had classes, attributes and methods and, best of all, reusability.

OOP is definitely the dominant programming model of today. It still has a few snags (for instance, just because the CalculatePi class has a square root method doesn’t mean you should include it in the general ledger system) but has more than delivered on its promises.

7. Graphical User Interface (GUI)
A great leap forward for usability, but sometimes you have to wonder if it’s worthwhile to click on the pull-down menu for “copy” when it’s easier to hit control-C

8. Java
Not only was a Java a more pure implementation of an object oriented language, it was designed from the git-go to run on any platform supporting a java virtual machine (JVM). It quickly became a standard and a handy way to poke Microsoft in the eye. By the turn of the 21st century our colleges were churning out Java programmers by the thousands.

No question Java is the language to use if you can. It still has a few problems with portability (“write once, debug everywhere”) and performance, but its universality makes it hard to resist.

9. The Internet
The Internet was not only going to revolutionize IT, it was going to change the way the world worked. Shopping, socializing, business were all going to be done over the Internet. Start-ups popped up like mushrooms amid dire predictions that any brick and mortar company bereft of a web presence was going to be out of business by next year.

It’s easy to be smug after the tech bubble burst earlier this century, but I am still a big fan of the Internet. Enormous amounts of information are at my fingertips and nearly anything can be bought online. Few of us would dare think of a world without it. The key is having reasonable expectations and remembering we still need the human touch.

10. Web Services
Web services are the latest twist on the client-server concept from the 80’s. Now the idea is to communicate through simple object access protocol (SOAP) messages written in eXtensible Markup Language (XML). If done properly, the disparate machines needn’t worry about the implementation or platform of the other.

This is the current future of IT and we can’t know how successful it’s going to be while we’re in the heat of battle. My notion is this will be another great idea that will become second nature to the next generation of programmers.

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