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Testing Mainframe Code on Your Laptop

IBM grabbed headlines last week when it unveiled its new System zEnterprise 196 mainframe. Something of a hybrid, the new mainframe combines the POWER7 and System x servers into one box, and the servers share resources through a common, virtualized platform.

Cool as this new hunk of iron is (and it's way cool: 60 percent faster than the z10, which it replaces, holds 3 Terabytes of RAM, and processes at 50 BIPS), what caught my attention was the upgrade to Rational Developer for System z IDE. Better known as RDz, this multi-platform environment for building, testing, and deploying zEnterprise applications comes with a new System z Unit Test feature. Developers using RDz can run the zOS on their laptops, write code for the mainframe, and now test that code.

"For our mainframe customers whose development teams were working with 30-year-old ISPF tools that ship with the mainframe, Rational Developer for System z brought them a laptop-driven development environment that set them free," Scott Searle, IBM Rational's not-usually-so-poetic marketing program director, told me. "Instead of working late into the night when the mainframes had some downtime, they could work with code anywhere, anytime on their laptops."

This version of RDz also comes with a new set of compilers designed to help customers update applications designed to work on older systems so that they can take advantage of the zEnterprise architecture.

RDz is aimed at COBOL and PL/I programmers, and I couldn't help wondering just how many codederos out there were learning and working with those languages today. Searle informed me that the current population of COBOL developers is about two million strong, and he says IBM expects it to grow -- with a little help. Thanks to an IBM initiative, COBOL is being taught in 400 colleges and universities around the world, he said, mainly in India, China and Eastern Europe.

"The big success story is India," Searle said. "We don't know the exact numbers in India, but we feel that it's in the neighborhood of 50,000 COBOL developers, and they're young and excited to be working on the mainframe."

But Searle suggested looking at the state of COBOL development today in another way: "We have customers who have been able to build up their COBOL developer populations with the help of a modern IDE," he said. "If you were a young college kid used to a modern IDE and you had to go in and learn ISPF, with all of its memorized prompts and commands, you'd hate it; it's not just boring, it's overwhelming. But Java developers learn modern IDE interfaces, and our customers find that they can work with COBOL just as well in that kind of environment."

These IBM customers also found that it's much harder to teach masters of the venerable, 50-plus-year-old COBOL to work with Java, Searle added.

And I shall resist here the childish impulse to say anything about old dogs and new tricks.

For more on the latest release of the Rational Developer for System z IDE, check out IBM's alphaWorks Web site, the COBOL Cafe online community and The Mainframe Blog.

Posted by John K. Waters on July 27, 2010