Open Source: Go-To Community Source for Mainframe

Since the 1950s, open access to source code has been used to create or adapt software for use on the mainframe to meet the needs of individual businesses. Sam Golob, maintainer of the CBT Tape (a collection of donated open source software for z/OS), says there are components of the z/OS operating system that are over 40 years old, but over time the code has changed and improvements were made either through updates from IBM or open access to the source code. However, desired enhancements from IBM would often take 10 to 15 years to implement, which is why programmers used that source code access to begin writing their own solutions to their own problems, he says. Businesses today now demand a shorter time to value. “Today’s development is based on a new model of continuous integration and continuous delivery, rather than the legacy waterfall model built on big releases and long lead times,” says Greg Lotko, senior vice president and general manager, Mainframe Division at Broadcom, which is a member of the Open Mainframe Project.

John Mertic, director of program management at The Linux Foundation, says the concept of sharing code in the mainframe is not new, and “SHARE came into existence for this very purpose in the 1950s.” Golob adds that with open source—a term coined in 1998 that broadens earlier source code sharing by adding clear legal and ethical rights for the user and developer—you can update software on the mainframe more quickly, especially if you have access to IBM’s assembler or language compilers that are necessary to access the system to foster greater efficiencies. “Now it is almost necessary to have these open source tools,” he says, especially if you work somewhere where they do not have the funds to buy vendor-developed software. “Vendors charge large sums for their software…It’s not like the personal computing world where everyone has a PC and the cost of developing software is cheaper. Mainframes are much more expensive to work on,” Golob explains.

Open source software and tools offer businesses a way to ensure they meet customer needs without the additional costs of paying vendors, and they provide the adaptability to meet those needs without long lead times. Today, Golob says the world’s computer installations rely on these open source programs and packages to operate, and the CBT Tape, for one, houses thousands of programs and tools to assist computer operation. This collection can aid businesses in many ways, as mainframe environments require varied skill sets to maintain them and solve problems. Few employees possess all of those skill sets, he adds. Open source also can help businesses with specific needs, like monitoring how jobs are running on the mainframe, and in diagnosing problems.

Mertic, who started out working with Linux code, explains that open source provides “consumers with the ability to ‘peek under the hood’ to see how the code works and make adjustments/fixes for their needs.” Meanwhile, “producers gain the insight and input from that community of consumers who provide fixes/features feedback, who in turn help improve the quality, security, and reliability of the codebase.” For those who know how to use open source tools, their ability to work anywhere is amplified because they can install and use these free tools in any shop where they work. Golob says, “You have a lot more flexibility in how useful you’ll be to any shop that hires you.”

According to Lotko, a project like Zowe, which is the first z/OS open source project sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project (and co-supported by IBM, Rocket and Broadcom), opens “mainframe development to open source and ‘off-platform’ tools.” Doing so accelerates time to value by facilitating DevOps practices, enables cross-platform applications, and offers young developers the skills they value from a career perspective. The number of open source projects focused on application development grows as communities of passionate developers come together and drive quick turnaround times. Further, Mertic says that “open source brings the mainframe back to its roots. It puts the mainframe user, developer, and administrator first, letting them solve their needs in a way that better aligns with their organization’s practices.”

Benefits of Open Source, per Broadcom’s Lotko:

  1. Developers can alter and extend open source code and contribute back to the community, reducing both change turnaround and vendor “lock-in”
  2. Collaboration is transparent, and all participants can discuss and help develop new features and fix bugs, enabling the best ideas to emerge and get implemented
  3. Changes are reviewed by the community, improving code quality and security

Mertic points to the automotive industry’s decision to move away from proprietary operating systems (OSes) to power their infotainment systems in cars and to collaboratively develop their own OS, based on Linux, that is free from royalties and gives them the flexibility to deliver features that car buyers want. He says, “Nearly a decade later, almost the entire automotive industry and their supply chain are part of the Automotive Grade Linux project.”

Lotko explains that Zowe offers a hybrid solution to open source in that a group of technology leaders have embraced an open source model and culture, rather than following the proprietary approach. Moreover, the community will likely collaborate with other leading open source communities toward the goal of making interaction on the mainframe like any other platform.

For any software placed on the mainframe, the code’s pedigree and quality must be paramount, says Mertic. “This is where open source comes out ahead of proprietary software because you can inspect and modify the code to meet your exact requirements. And with worldwide eyes on the source code, you have broader experience and insight into the workloads powered by applications—and having source code access to applications lets one get under the hood and improve the quality of the software,” he adds. Lotko also says open source needs to rely on mainframe standard security mechanisms so no breaches are created when using it.

As businesses demand shorter time to value, developers on z/OS can now embrace the collaboration found in the open source community in order to speed the development of applications and other software to meet business and customer needs. Businesses should not have to  wait a decade for improvements they need today. The collaboration that occurs in the  open source community can provide the necessary transparency and security that is required for z/OS software, while pursuing the goal of improved time to market. 


Want to learn more about open source and Zowe? Join us at SHARE Phoenix (March 10-15) for a number of sessions led by experts in the field. Check out the technical agenda here to learn more.

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