Mainframes are getting so easy to manage that fewer people are required, according to a recent report - but there remains a big skills gap despite IBM's efforts to improve the situation.

A new report by industry analyst Clabby Analytics found that "all of the new improvements that IBM is making in mainframe management may actually reduce the number of people needed to manage mainframes in the future as well as reduce the skills needed to manage mainframe environments." The report indicates that the mainframe's ability to run Linux and Java workloads will "play a vital role in ensuring the mainframe's longevity."

However, it also found that "locating mainframe skills can be difficult in certain geographies - and this is a real problem for IBM going forward as it seeks to expand mainframe usage worldwide." It adds: "Another major problem that IBM is faced with is that the number of schools actually aggressively involved in providing education on mainframes declined in the 1990s. The move to distributed midrange minicomputers in the 1980s and 1990s changed the focus of technical educational institutions. Emphasis was placed on teaching Windows and Unix skills, while mainframe skills were largely de-emphasised."

The report refers to IBM's effort to make the IBM System z mainframe easier to use. According to IBM, it is spending $100 million over the next five years on training and other efforts to provide technicians with skills to program, manage and administer mainframes while simplifying application development.

According to Clabby, this initiative is "making mainframe management appeal to our next generation of Windows-born-and-trained managers and administrators."

However, the report doesn't take into account the current skills shortage, especially in Linux and Java development and administration, workloads which IBM mainframes are increasingly being asked to shoulder. Salaries are rising by over five percent annually for such jobs, well ahead of the rate of inflation, a phenomenon normally associated with a skills shortage.

For IBM, this looks like a growing problem: Big Blue reported that its revenues from mainframes grew 12 percent in the first quarter of 2007.