Thought Leadership: Ivan Gelb Shares What It's Like to Be a CICS Mercenary

Ivan Gelb is known as a frequent presenter at SHARE, Computer Measurement Group (CMG) and most of the major IBM technical conferences. He is the president of Gelb Information Systems Corp. (GIS), a New Jersey-based consulting firm that provides management and technical services across the United States and abroad. But there's one title he'd much rather be known by. "I'm a consultant, but I prefer to call myself a mercenary," he says. "Tell me what your problem is, and I will solve it for you. All you have to do is pay us!"

During his more than three decades of experience, he has become an expert when it comes to Customer Information Control System (CICS), a family of mixed language application servers that provide online transaction management and connectivity for applications on IBM mainframe systems under z/OS and z/VSE. In his view, what makes CICS special compared to the other online environments on and off the mainframe?

"CICS is obviously something that runs on the mainframe and benefits from the superior reliability that the mainframe environment can produce compared to any other environment," he says. "What makes CICS unique is that it has this long list of available applications that are rock-solid because they've been around and they have a rich inventory of new applications as well. CICS is also capable of serving whatever rapid application development technique you wish to employ. It's more open to various types of solutions than anything else, at a better cost than anything else once you reach a certain size. For very small systems of less than 100 interactive customers, CICS may not be the most price-competitive. But once you go to larger systems, including transaction rates in the thousands and tens of thousands per second and you wish for the highest qualities of service, no platform beats CICS. The CICS, DB/2, Websphere and MQ Series products provide industry leading solutions for any application requirement."

CICS is indeed designed to support rapid, high-volume online transaction processing (OLTP). But as with any popular technology, there are misperceptions and misinformation associated with it. Gelb states, "The most damning and unjustified misinformation is that the mainframe environment is more expensive than similar solutions on the competing architectures like AIX, Linux, UNIX and Windows. It's the biggest and longest lasting piece of misconception that personally makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck and serves as a justification for the most misdirected decisions. In an apple-to-apple comparison with competing solutions, CICS is typically the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) solution. Unless you compare similar attributes of service, similar scalability, similar reliability, your comparison is not valid. And it comes up everywhere. Wherever it comes up, the high cost of CICS solutions finding is never objective and defensible." He continues, "The source is typically someone who wants to sell you something other than CICS and IBM mainframes. During a sales pitch, it is unlikely that we’ll ever be getting the objective, exact facts. These pitches begin with something like, 'To the best of my knowledge...' How many technical decisions do you want to base upon such a foundation? The bottom line is always the bottom line. It's just coming up with a solution at optimum cost."

Another Gelb hot button: The effectiveness of CICS systems today often suffers because many customers do not realize that their CICS design is still based on architectural limitations of past software and hardware releases that were eliminated many years ago. The most notorious CICS applications limitation was the single Task Control Block (TCB), and therefore a single processor limit, known as the Quasi-reentrant TCB.

Because Gelb has been in the game for so long — since 1976, he has also been a CICS projects officer for SHARE — he has certainly seen some unique CICS applications. "Oh yes!" he exclaims. "I've seen some really, really strange ones that I cannot discuss because of non-disclosure agreements. I can tell you about some major ones that people would not expect to be CICS. Essentially, if you look at any one of the major telecoms, whether cellular or traditional, they are all major CICS users. I also had the pleasure of working on the design and the development of a major family of applications at the New York City Department of Education that supports over a million students. While there is a front-end running on Windows, a lot of the backend is still served with a CICS, VSAM and DB2 combination. Another interesting application is at one of the major fried chicken vendors that wanted to keep their recipe a secret. The way they did it is with a CICS application that randomizes the mixing of the secret recipe’s ingredients so industry spies cannot recreate it. Wal-Mart also has a very large installation dependent on CICS. Their back-end technology efforts are really exemplary. For example, they can create a complete test CICS environment for a developer faster than it takes to complete the request for it. They demonstrated this capability at a past SHARE session."

And even though Gelb's career has been long and exemplary, he hasn't lost any of his passion for the work. His IT background includes everything from data communications systems, applications design and implementation, performance management and capacity planning, determining optimum hardware and software requirements for mainframe and today’s dominant architecture of ever-present, multi-tiered systems with extremely high scalability, transaction rates, and availability requirements.

"I love solving problems and making customers proud and happy with the solutions," he comments. "My goal is always to come up with the best possible business solution for a particular customer. I have been in business for just over 30 years. The good news is that because I am a mercenary, I can eliminate what could be the least favorite parts of my job. How's that for an added value? If there is a job we don't like, we don't have to accept it." Gelb adds, "I’m humbled by the positive feedback we receive. It's a good feeling to be able to create a solution that helps people when they are in trouble. That's when we get called."

He concludes, "The trend of the last few major CICS releases has been to make CICS more open, easier to manage, more flexible in getting work in and out, more scalable, while also keeping an eye on internal effectiveness. With CICS, there is now less work and less 'care and feeding' to get it out of the box and installed to the point where it actually does something productive for a customer. These days, you can accomplish that in under an hour, which is something that, years ago, would take weeks and multiple systems programmers. Today, it's down to less than an hour. The tactical and strategic CICS plans of IBM will keep this product as the best of the bunch."

Ivan Gelb is experienced in all the major IT architectures: IBM mainframes, Linux, Unix and Windows. He consulted at over 100 organizations, and is a career long supporter of SHARE, IDUG and Computer Measurement group, and a “decorated” presenter of numerous technical and management seminars.

— Information Inc.

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