Putting a ‘Young’ Interface on the Mainframe

Younger IT techs who like their mobile touch screens, and generally gravitate to colorful graphical displays, may consider the 3270 “green screen” associated with the mainframe a turn-off.

Never mind that the green screen’s response time is a fraction of how long it takes for graphical screen to load. You know what I’m talking about: We’ve all sat there waiting for paint to dry as the graphics materialize on the display. With the green screen, the response time is a fraction of a second.

Of course, we may not get far in attracting the younger crowd to the mainframe by extolling the virtues of the green screen, no matter how much faster it may be. And vendors are well aware of this, which is why in recent years they have endeavored to modernize mainframe application interfaces.

Take CA, which has taken cues from mobile devices and the very popular Mac OS to design software interfaces. The vendor “has changed the look of mainframe software to make it more appealing to a generation weaned on sleek Apple computers and the crisp, interactive online games and tools of the new Web,” as reported by the Economic Times in 2010.

More recently, Macro 4 introduced an Eclipse interface for its mainframe application performance management software, FreezeFrame. The interface adds new features while making it easier for “new or less experienced mainframe support staff to work with z/OS systems.”

So when it comes to the mainframe, taking interface design cues from popular systems and mobile apps is a welcome development. As younger generations grow up with tablets and smartphones, they will expect the screens they use at work to least emulate those of their beloved personal devices.

But Does It Make Sense?

Looks matter when it comes to user interfaces, but it’s important to keep in mind the interface should suit the function. A combination of 3270 features and graphical GUI functional may prove the best approach in most cases.

IBM has made great strides in this area. For instance, the vendor has modernized the user interface for systems management. The Tivoli OMEGAMON’s new interface preserves many of the 3270’s features while adding functionality such as cross-system and cross-product reporting.

“What IBM has done with its ‘GUI on a green screen’ is it has allowed some mainframe managers to stay within their 3270 comfort zone while getting the same display benefits that GUI mainframe managers get using graphically-oriented products,” according to a report from Clabby Analytics.

Another area IBM has addressed is application development. Rational Developer, an IDE for mainframe developers, runs on the PC and lets mainframe developers connect to the mainframe in lieu of using a 3270 screen or emulator. The IDE enables development of mainframe-based applications in COBOL, PL/I, Assembler, C/C++, and Java.

Such moves are bound to pay dividends not only for vendors but also the mainframe as a whole. While veteran mainframers may be just fine with – and indeed prefer – the old green screens that a lot of people still equate with the king of computers, younger professionals are bound to view those 3270 screens the same way they view a telephone landline: old-fashioned. While both are certainly functional, different generations of mainframers have different preferences.

Seeing Green

Before the PC grew up, 3270s were ubiquitous. Anyone who used a computer before the advent of the World Wide Web is bound to have encountered the green screen at some point. But even though those 3270s are still associated with the mainframe, the truth is the mainframe interfaces have evolved. Today they are closer to a UI you would see when using a PC or Unix machine.

In fact, those interfaces do such an exceptional job of disguising the mainframe that most people don’t realize when the application they are accessing connects to a mainframe at the backend. Such is the case in banking, where mainframes perform large-scale transaction processing and support thousands of users accessing applications from various points across vast geographic areas.

The green screen has proven resilient and may never entirely disappear. For some functionality, such as managing security and managing virtual images, it may still be the best available option.

Its utility is beyond dispute, and a concession to that is the green screen even being emulated in some mobile apps for access to the mainframe. Still, wherever it makes sense, as IBM, CA and Macro 4 have already figured out, designing interfaces that appeal to younger users is a smart move.

What do you think? Is moving to a more consumer-like interface a good thing? Or is it adding a layer that takes away from the elegant simplicity of the mainframe?

1 Comment
1 Like

RE: Putting a ‘Young’ Interface on the Mainframe

January 13, 2014 10:14 AM by michael marcus

Have IBM and other software vendors done a disservice to us "old" mainframers by not being aggressive enough by not creating more GUI interfaces to at least have something to provide more of an attraction to the younger people out ther.  The hard part is how to get the knowledge of what is behind the interface, so what is needed to support a z/OS system is there.  To paraphrase an old expression: "A GUI does not a system programmer make."

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