The mainframe is still a core part of the enterprise infrastructure, but UK companies are struggling with a shortfall in skills to run and manage it.

So says a survey, entitled The Mainframe: Surviving and Thriving in a Turbulent World, which was commissioned by CA. 83 percent of UK respondents are worried about the lack of mainframe skills in their company, compared to around 66 percent for the rest of Europe, as staff retire or leave the company.

Companies are trying to counter this shortfall with training programmes; with 43 percent of UK respondents saying they were focusing on mainframe skills training, compared with 33 percent of European counterparts.

Another tactic is to buy-in the necessary skills, with 25 percent of organisations outsourcing certain activities. Meanwhile, 35 percent think that that a web-orientated graphical user interface (GUI) would enable less-experienced IT staff to narrow the skills gap.

But why are mainframe skills declining?

"The answer is combination of things," said James O'Malley, CA's mainframe sales VP for the UK and Ireland. "The mainframe being around a long time now with a lot of people working on this platform for 30 years plus. So retirement is an issue, but also a lot of people have been retrained and redeployed after the ‘mainframe is dying myth' of ten years ago."

Indeed, the survey found that mainframes still handle 55 percent of companies' data; this rises to 59 percent for companies with more than 3,000 staff; and rises again to 64 percent for organisations where the mainframe is connected with distributed, server-based computing systems.

"People are recommitting to the mainframe, as it is a hugely efficient platform," O'Malley told Techworld. "The industry has a huge amount of its critical data stored on the mainframe, and the sector is seeing huge growth." He cited figures that in 2001, there were 4.5 million MIPS worldwide, and today there is 14 million MIPS world.

"We are now experiencing a renaissance for the mainframe platform," O'Malley said. "The perception is that mainframes are only found in large financial institutions and large enterprises, and admittedly these platforms remain critical to those organisations."

"But there are a lot of Linux applications moving onto the mainframe, which is an area where we are really seeing a lot of mainframe growth," he said.

"The mainframe is incredibly green as a platform, with high utilisation and it has had fantastic virtualisation for twenty years now," he said. "The ability of the mainframe machine to share resources across multiple environments is second to none."

He also pointed to IBM bringing out new mainframe technology, so that it has the ability to run Linux, Java apps, and DB2 etc. "IBM should take a lot of credit for the openness and resurgence of the platform," O'Malley said. "People are absolutely converting to the new Z10 architecture. People used to think that mainframes are old, but the Z class machines are state-of-the-art technology."

O'Malley pointed to the headache posed by server sprawl, which is real issue for disaster recovery purposes. "Consider disaster recovery in an environment with thousands of distributed servers, whereas the mainframe is proven in DR terms."

"A lot of people are looking to consolidate their distributed world," he said. "For very large organisations with thousands of servers, the mainframe gives you much more control of your assets."

The survey was conducted by Vanson Bourne, which interviewed a total of 180 IT directors and senior IT managers during February and March 2009, with 40 respondents each in the UK, France, and Germany, and 20 each in Italy, Benelux and the Nordics.