Putting Mainframes in the Mainstream

 Marist College student works in Marist's Enterprise Computing Research Lab

Senior Doug Rohde learned about mainframes from his classes but also from his hands-on work as a student-intern system administrator for the IBM System z 114 mainframe and zBlade Center in Marist’s Enterprise Computing Research Laboratory.

Ever since Marist senior Doug Rohde was in middle school, he's been interested in computers.

"I was the one who was always on the computer, always took tech classes in high school," Rohde says. "It wasn't something that ever bored me, because it's always changing."

Rohde is now an information technology major who puts in as many as 20 hours a week (and put in 40 hours a week this past summer) as a student-intern system administrator for the IBM System z 114 mainframe and zBlade Center, the rock star of Marist's new Enterprise Computing Research Laboratory. The lab is the cornerstone of a program to introduce mainframe computing into undergraduate education, initiated at Marist through a National Science Foundation grant.

The NSF awarded the two-year $400,000 grant to Marist College in September 2008 to work with eight academic partners and nine industry partners to build an academic and industry community that would revitalize undergraduate education in enterprise computing. The lab and related equipment were also supported by a second NSF grant. Additional equipment was provided by IBM, the world's primary manufacturer of enterprise computing systems, which has had a research partnership with Marist since 1988.

Why is enterprise computing education important? "Enterprise computing and IBM mainframes are quietly and securely running the most mission-critical businesses in the world," says Don Resnik, IBM worldwide System z academic initiative and client skills leader. "This includes government, financial, retail, and the public communities.

"A CIO once told me that schools should be calling this education 'Extreme IT' because it's the most extreme computing in the world." Currently, Resnik says, 1,067 schools around the world include IBM enterprise computing in their curricula.

Among them, Marist has taken the lead in establishing an enterprise computing community (ECC) that now has about 1,000 members worldwide. It is anchored by a robust educational component. "Marist College has definitely distinguished itself as a global leader in enterprise systems education," says Resnik, by first having "an IT staff that runs the most efficient and secure enterprise computing environment that's best of breed globally in academia, and secondly, an enterprise computing education program that was developed in partnership with over 20 global industry leaders in enterprise systems."

"A very important proof point for students and parents is that the same enterprise education that students can receive at Marist College is also taught to industry professionals from over 60 global businesses," says Resnik. "If companies trust enrolling their employees at Marist College for enterprise computing education, the quality and value of that education is best of breed in the industry."

Marist's offerings include nine undergraduate credit-bearing courses and eight noncredit courses, all available online through the Institute for Data Center Professionals at Marist College. Faculty members use the Enterprise Computing Research Laboratory to train undergraduate and graduate students in research methods and practices. The lab is available to Marist faculty and student researchers as well as academic and industry researchers.

The lab is used solely for research and research training, Rohde says, which is somewhat unusual. "Usually when there is a mainframe, it's in a production environment, so not many resources get dedicated to research and development." Rohde sets up and oversees the research projects, making sure the lab's resources are allocated appropriately.

Another key activity of the ECC is its annual conference.Since 2009, Marist has hosted a conference each June that has drawn atleast 150 and as many as 230 people. The audience is made up of 60 percent industry and 40 percent academia, says Assistant Dean of the School of Computer Science and Mathematics Mary Ann Hoffmann. Partners and sponsors in the ECC are Illinois State University, North Carolina A&T State University, Widener University, University of Arkansas, Monroe College, San Jose State University, Stevens Institute of Technology, Binghamton University, Aetna, Bank of America, BMC Software, CA Technologies, Citigroup, Compuware, IBM, Micro Focus, Morgan Stanley, Progressive Insurance, Rocket Software, State Farm Insurance, the Travelers Companies, and Verizon.

For the 2012 conference, guests traveled to Marist from as far away as Australia. Soon after the conference, there were more international visitors. Representatives came to Marist from Shenzhen University in Guangdong and Tongji University in Shanghai to learn about the College's enterprise computing courses. Marist also sent its own representatives abroad; when the University of Canberra held its own enterprise computing conference in May, one of its keynote speakers was Dr. Roger Norton, dean of Marist's School of Computer Science and Mathematics.

During the Marist conference, one industry visitor was impressed enough with Rohde and other students working at the event to hand out business cards and offer everyone jobs. "He said, 'We're always looking for kids like you,' " Rohde says.

Rohde says he learned about mainframes in his Marist classes but also learned a lot from his hands-on work with the System z 114. "This job gives me the opportunity to learn things in college that most other students don't get a chance to."

"Businesses that require the most secure and dependable systems on the planet want students who can build and maintain enterprise systems, storage, and software from many hundreds of vendors," says IBM's Resnik. "There are unlimited jobs in this industry, but students have to get the fundamentals to get started and from there—the career choices are amazing. Enterprise systems are about building and maintaining the most important IT infrastructures in the world."