In this episode of the “I Am a Mainframer” podcast, host Steven Dickens is joined by Enzo Damato, a high school senior, self-proclaimed mainframe nerd, researcher, and teacher. During this fascinating and inspiring conversation, Enzo shares his passion for the mainframe and how he has been self-teaching and building systems since the fourth grade.
They also explore what it has meant to Enzo to have supportive parents who have encouraged his technical development, the creative way in which he obtained his own z114 — what it was like to unbox it when it was delivered — and his plans for what will certainly be a bright future. This conversation will inspire and delight — and it’s one you won’t want to miss!
Announcer: This is the I Am A Mainframer podcast, brought to you by the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project. Episodes explore the careers of mainframe professionals and offer insights into the industry and technology. Now your host, senior analyst and vice president of sales and business Development at Futurum Research, Steven Dickens.
Steven Dickens: Hello folks and my name’s Steven Dickens and I’m looking forward to today’s episode. I’ve got Enzo Damato here. Enzo, welcome to the show.
Enzo Damato: Thank you for having me. It’s really a great opportunity to get to talk to you and present to the community.
Steven Dickens: Enzo, we spoke just a few moments off camera. I’m really looking forward to today. Let’s just introduce you to the listeners. What are you doing, where are you in your journey? Let’s just get orientated. Just tell us for a few moments, a little bit about you and how you’ve got into the mainframe.
Enzo Damato: I have been building out my home server lab since I was in fourth grade. As part of that, I’ve gotten everything from various networking equipment to tape libraries to just normal servers. Around three years ago I had the opportunity to participate in the IBM Master the Mainframe, it was called then. Now it’s called Z Xplore program. That was really a really great introduction to the platform, what it was about, and through a part of that I learned about the history of the platform, like historical computers and stuff.
I messed around with the Hercules emulator a bit, and ever since that time I’ve been searching for my own mainframe to get and to have my own access to the physical hardware. This has been around two years of searching, and eventually around six months ago, I found a machine that I could get, and I set up upon the process of buying it. Ever since that point, I have had my own mainframe at my house and I’ve been working on getting it set up and programmed and all working. And I was invited this August to present my experiences at the SHARE Conference, which was a really great opportunity.
Steven Dickens: Fantastic. Enzo, let’s geek out a little bit here. So what have you got at home? I understand this is z14, so maybe just for-
Enzo Damato: z 114.
Steven Dickens: Oh, z114. Okay.
Enzo Damato: Yeah, I’m not blessed enough to have a model that new.
Steven Dickens: I was going to say that. That’s obviously a business class machine from a way back. Let’s just go and tell me the story. Where did you find a z114? That’s probably a 10 year old, maybe 11 year old machine?
Enzo Damato: 10 years, exact. 2012.
Steven Dickens: I see. I know what I’m talking about. Maybe let’s understand, how did you track it down? How did you find one of these in the wild? How did you manage to get hold of this box?
Enzo Damato: So I started off the process, like I said, around two years ago. I had seen on Govdeals, on a government auction site, come up a much larger lot of three z114s, DS unit and five frames of tape library. Now I really wanted to get this unit at the time. It was right near my house too. It was in New York City and I could just, it was like an hour away. I could just truck it up. But my parents said, “We’re not installing an electric substation. We’re powering, but you can’t have the entire garage.” So unfortunately to my everlasting consternation, that got shut down. And after that point I was really determined to get my own machine, not only because the tech was really cool, but also because it was now the unobtainium and I was a teenager so I really, really wanted to track one down.
And I set up alerts on sites like government auction sites on eBay and whatnot. And I eventually located one and on eBay that was being sold, it was in North Carolina and I bought it. I messaged with the seller a lot. I planned out shipping. I found a carrier who was willing to truck it, which was a real nightmare. It turns out no one wants to move an 1800 pound mainframe.
Steven Dickens: Let’s maybe just go back a step before that. What got you interested in mainframe in the first place? So you’ve now got one of these z114s, but why? Talk me through the decision making processes, if there was one of, “hey, I want to get into mainframe computing.” That’s not a typical thing for a high schooler to think.
Enzo Damato: Well, I guess what first got me involved in the technology at all was its connection to vintage and retro computing. I had been doing a lot of reading. I found pictures, the old system 360s and I was like, “Oh that’s really cool.” I did more research into it. I learned that these things are not just retro computers, that they are still around, that they’re immensely powerful and that they’re a really cool modern platform. And I started reading about what they did. I started seeing what they did. I watched Connor Kowalski’s presentation at SHARE, which was really interesting. I was like, “Huh, this is really cool. This is the logical pinnacle of home led computers.” And I said, “I have to have it. This is the biggest, this is the best I can possibly get. This is the most powerful computer I can have.” And I set myself to locate one.
I had messed around, like I said, and that the mainframe and the Hercules simulator with some of the older MVS releases and I said, “This is really neat. I find this tech interesting. It’s not just another Linux box. It’s not front end web development.” And said, “But you know, can’t really learn unless you have your own hardware.” That’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always built out my own hardware. I’ve always wanted to get really hands on with the tech and getting my own mainframe gave me the opportunity to do that. So that’s why I was so hooked.
Steven Dickens: So let’s wind forward now. The z114 arriving in the garage. Talk us through the kind of unboxing and kind of cabling process and getting these things set up from scratch.
Enzo Damato: Well the unboxing process was one of sort of sheer terror because we got it off the truck, which was terrifying because the truck actually, the lift gate has an incline so you have to hold it and hope it doesn’t crush you if it falls. And then it got even worse when we found out that the builders had built the doors to our garage around a quarter inch too small so it didn’t actually fit the door, which is a really great feeling when you’re on an incline holding an 1800 pound mainframe with three other people. So yeah, eventually we decided that it was going to rain that day, so we had to get it inside. All four of us started pushing on the back of the machine as hard as we could. And then with the groan it ripped part of the door frame off and shot through the garage door.
So we got it inside just barely, which it was obviously very nerve-wracking. We got it inside, we moved it to its final location and then we reassembled the garage door. Beyond that, I had to do some research on power cabling be as mine had a 3 phase plug and I was doing standard 220. It turns out you just hack off the third phase wire positive to phase one, positive two to phase two and ground to ground and it works like a champ. I was actually right like 10 feet away my from the rack down the basement here where my open surface were. So we just pulled a bundle of fiber cabling through the wall to get it all hooked up to data.
Steven Dickens: So you’ve got it cabled up, you’ve got a green light, code 20 sort of set up. Talk us through then what sub systems of z/OS, what else have you put on this box since you got it Code 20?
Enzo Damato: I actually don’t have z/OS up yet. I’m going to be getting z/OS soon. So in the immediate aftermath of it, I spent around a month doing all of the pre-game stuff. I had to set up my own fiber channel san for storage at least at first. So that took a while. It turns out that you can actually do that with a standard Linux box using a fiber channel card. You can turn that Linux box into a san, but the software that allows you to do that is buggy as hell. So I had to manually debug it and manually fix it and recompile it, my kernel and a bunch of other stuff. But I was eventually able to get the Linux box working and do that, which gave me storage. And then I had to write ICDS, which also took a while. That’s pretty cryptic, especially if you don’t have z/OS hardware configuration program if you have to write it up from scratch.
But I got that written up and then I loaded Linux to make sure everything was working and then loaded up the z/VM. IBM had sent over from Paul Novak, who’s my contact at IBM right now, who’s in the z/VM obviously department. So he sent over a z/VM image, which I loaded up. And I was also in contact with the people at 21st Century Software and they sent over [inaudible 00:08:53]. So that’s what I have up right now. I’ve also just recently received a Flex-Cub device from Fundamental Software. So I am planning my z/OS install as we speak. I have the driver system. I’m currently waiting on IBM to send up a server pack, but once I get that I’m going to have full z/OS up and running.
Steven Dickens: So you are in a Linux and z environment at the moment?
Enzo Damato: z/VM environment at the moment. Linux onset is a test system.
Steven Dickens: Okay. So what Linux operating system have you decided to put on there?
Enzo Damato: I did SUSE.
Steven Dickens: Okay. And talk us through how that went. z/VMs got some history going back to the ’70s. It’s still in production in a lot of organizations in the foundation there. Talk us through how you’ve got on deploying Linux on this box.
Enzo Damato: Well it wasn’t really that different at first. I mean probably the biggest difference was setting up the network cards actually because the OSA cards are set up differently under z/VM and under VM in general. But getting that set up wasn’t that big of a deal. I’d say the biggest adjustment for me was setting up the z/VM itself, figuring out how to set up the mini discs and set up the storage setup and learn the commands and set up DirMaint and all those other parts of z/VM. Just learning the new system, reading hundreds of pages of manuals to figure out the new commands, figure out how to do everything from scratch, figure out what it all does.
Steven Dickens: So in comparison to some of the other systems to sort of x86 based systems, other Linux systems, what was the experience? Compare and contrast.
Enzo Damato: Well, I’d say the experience was a lot more mainframe. The experience was everything I expected it to be from a computer this big. I mean obviously a lot more reading involved, a lot less point and click, but on the other hand a lot more robust and at least in my opinion, it seems a lot more robust. Setting up the discs and setting up the san, the amount of resources you have, the system speed, the way the IO is set up, it really seems like it’s built like a mainframe, built not to fail, built with really high availability in mind, really large amount of workload running on one box. And the Linux environment that you do get set up seems a lot more enterprise ready in a way it seems. I’ve mainly worked with non-distributions. I’ve mainly done a bunch of Debian and SUSE seems like a lot more polished on the mainframe. Seems a lot more reliable, a lot fewer bugs and that sort of thing.
Steven Dickens: So you’ve got to be a lot more intentional is the take?
Enzo Damato: That’s right.
Steven Dickens: You’ve got to really think through your deployment rather than-
Enzo Damato: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it.
Steven Dickens: Yeah. Okay. So what’s been the reaction from the community? I mean SHARE’s a fantastic environment. I can imagine you went down the STOR. Talk me through what the reaction was following your presentation.
Enzo Damato: Well I think the reaction was absolutely fantastic both before and after. Before my presentation, the reaction was a lot of encouragement and a lot of help from people who’ve gotten in touch with me to help me get hardware, help me get in contact with people at IBM, help me get everything you really need to get a mainframe set up, get in contact with the people at Fundamental Software, a Flex-Cub. All that stuff was really supportive. And after SHARE, that’s only been even more so. I’ve gotten in touch with a number of publications like this, a number of mainframers around the world who I’ve been talking to and it’s really been a great experience to get to meet everyone and really get to meet all these people who are involved in this community. The community’s been super friendly, super welcoming and super helpful.
Steven Dickens: Fantastic. So maybe let’s see where you are now. High school senior. We were talking a bit off camera before around the amount of colleges you were applying to. I’m assuming you’re applying to do CompSci rather than become a music major. But maybe just talk us through what the thought process is and what’s next.
Enzo Damato: That would be an assumption.
Steven Dickens: I kind of figured-
Enzo Damato: Primary college obviously CompSci is where I want to be. I want to do CompSci maybe with a minor in cybersecurity or a minor in computer engineering. Both fields I find very interesting. I want to take that knowledge, I want to go and I want to develop software, I want to develop systems. I find working on computers to be really fascinating and something that I definitely want to keep doing. It’s been what I’ve been doing since I’m in, like I said, since I’m in fourth grade, something I definitely want to stick with. It’s what I do for fun as well as what I hope to do for work. And I’m hoping that the mainframe can be a part of that. I really enjoy working with the platform. It’s very different, very interesting. And as someone who’s always looking for a new technical challenge to explore, mainframe really gives you that. There’s a lot on the mainframe and a lot of very different environments and deployments. You can always have something new to play with, new to learn.
Steven Dickens: So I mean a lot of people say this is a legacy technology. A lot of people say there’s a lot of barriers to skills. It’s tough to understand. I don’t subscribe to any of that and it doesn’t sound like you do either. What’s been just getting on the platform for the first time, understanding it, going from zero to deploying a machine and getting it up and running, how’s that experience been?
Enzo Damato: Well, I think the experience has been really wonderful, but I think there’s one major thing that’s lacking and that’s a real hobbyist program. One of the reasons why Linux is so popular right now is because anyone who wants to learn about it can just download it. The cloud is really popular because any high schooler can sign up for a free account for a year and then pay $3 a month to keep a basic instance up and running. And I feel there’s really no equivalent with the mainframe. And I think there should be because it’s not a legacy tech. It’s the fact that people have deployed legacy code to the tech that no one’s bothered to update. And I feel like if you were running code from the ’60s, it doesn’t matter whether you’re running it on the mainframe or anything else, it’s going to be legacy.
But if you are doing all the cool new stuff that the mainframe can be doing from new languages to I guess all the new features, z/CX, z/OSMF, all the new frameworks like running web applications on the mainframe, using it as a big database server running Linux on the mainframe and all the other wonderful stuff that you can run on now, all the new DevOps stuff they’ve been doing, the real encryption and AI capabilities, it really can be a modern platform and in a way is a lot more modern than some of the Linux stuff because it is a standardized platform and when it gets upgraded you can really take advantage of those new capabilities without having to wait for other parts of your stack to update.
But I think there’s a real barrier to entry and that there is no hobbyist program. If I want my friends to get on it, I have to give them access to my system, which I have no problem doing. I want my friends to mess with this stuff too. It’s really fun. But if I hadn’t been able to find a mainframe, I wouldn’t have been able to set up z/OS from scratch. I wouldn’t have been able to set up VM from scratch. There’s no real program for people who like doing everything from the ground up on mainframe and I think there should be,
Steven Dickens: Yeah, it’s going to be interesting now that the Open Mainframe project has got its own hardware. I think that’s going to give a neutral place in the community for people like yourself to be able to bounce onto that machine. I mean that’s been a long time coming. There’s been some stuff that IBM’s done to provide sort of free cloud access, but it’s certainly not been the hobbyist program to the extent that you’ve described there.
Enzo Damato: And I feel like that if you are a company in the mainframe space, if you are making something, there’s really no downside to putting together a hobbyist program. There aren’t many people who have their own machines. But if I have my own machine, it’s not like I’m going to be paying you $100 grand for software. I don’t have that. There’s no downside to letting people like us explore and play with that technology. The only benefit is that there are going to be more people in mainframe doing more cool stuff in mainframe, making the community bigger. And a lot of companies have known this for a while, even companies making proprietary software. I’ve given out hobbyists trial access and I think people have their own machines or people who are running emulators obviously within reason, not giving it away for completely for free to businesses, but people who are students who are genuinely trying to learn.
I think giving that access and creating a student program or hobbyist program would really help to get more people interested because a lot of the people I know are interested in mainframe. A lot of the kids I know even before I got this program like, “Mainframe looks really cool. Let me know when you have that up. I really want to mess with that.” The idea that no one really wants to get into mainframe is not true. It’s that a lot of people aren’t able to get in the mainframe and if the challenge is spending two years trying to get 1800 pound equipment or just getting a Raspberry Pi and messing with Linux, I think a lot of the kids take the easier way out even though it’s less enjoyable and less opportunity for messing with cool mainframe stuff.
Steven Dickens: Yeah, I tend to agree. We’ve got to remove those barriers to entry and make it easy for interested kids like you to get onto this platform. So I ask this question of every guest on the show and I’m really interested in your answer. Well, I’m genuinely interested in everybody else’s answer, but maybe I’m extra especially interested in your answer. I ask people to look into a crystal ball and look three, five years out as you’re so early to the platform, where do you see the mainframe three, five years from now? Where do you see the platform going?
Enzo Damato: In three to five years I see the mainframe continuing to thrive and continuing to do really well. I think if they can get more young people onto the mainframe, if they can really let people experiment with it. I’ve been seeing just personally since I’ve been watching mainframe in the search for it, I’ve been seeing a resurgence of interest in people online, of people posting about it, even of people getting their own systems. And I think that as long as people continue to nurture that upswell, people are going to see all the cool stuff mainframe has to offer and really get into mainframe. I think you’re seeing with cloud getting so big, people are finding out that cloud, I think the cloud like the public cloud or the Amazon Web Services type cloud really is going to be scaling back as it finds its niche. In the past, everyone’s been in a rush to get onto the cloud and get everything onto the cloud.
And I think as that reaches its pinnacle, we have a lot of workload on the cloud. People are going to say, “All right, the cloud is really great for this but not so great for that. The cloud is awesome for my business but not really for that business.” And as that occurs and people say, “This is really the way public cloud shines,” I think people are going to say, “This is where mainframe shines in terms of these kind of workloads and these kind of businesses,” because there are a wide variety of workloads, a wide variety of platforms, and every platform is right for a different kind of workload. No one’s ever going to be on the same thing and I think that the mainframe provides a really good type, really good, I guess value proposition would be the business word, but a really good environment for certain kinds of workloads, especially in those big, big companies that can really utilize the hardware.
Steven Dickens: Yeah, I tend to agree. The way I describe it is, just because the car exists doesn’t mean there’s not a use case for the train, the plane and the boat or all different types of journeys require different types of vehicles. So give you a bit of an opportunity use. Obviously deploying this box, you’re not fully done yet. If people are listening to the show and they want to help, how can people get in touch with you and what do you need to do the next stage of your deployment?
Enzo Damato: Well, next stage of my deployment, well I really need two things right now. DASD, the Flex-Cup I have is awesome, but it’s only a loan unit until the end of the year. I’ve been working with IBM to see what options are available to me. I think I may have some options, but if anyone has some disc they’re looking to get rid of, I have had experience with shipping as long as it’s something reasonably recent, I will be more than happy to ship it up and put it to good use doing good work for me, the students at my school who want to play with this and other people who are really interested in mainframe tech. So that would be one.
Two would be software. If you have software that you or your company makes or even that is internal that you want to send over, I have no problem running anything. I love getting the opportunity to learn. I have a blog going now that I’m finished with college applications mostly, which I’m going to be updating really regularly, which I’m hoping to do a lot of writeups about different software, about what it does, doing experiments with it and showing really what it’s capable of. So that’s something.
And yeah, that’s about it. And I guess hardware and software in general. If you have equipment and especially even retro equipment like old consoles and stuff, I love getting stuff working. I love hooking stuff to my machine and I really want to explore every aspect in every area of the mainframe ecosystem and the enterprise computing and enterprise hardware ecosystem in general. Like I said, I have a whole open surface lab. I love getting to play with new stuff. I love getting to write up about new stuff and talk about new stuff and explore what it’s capable of. So if you have stuff you’re no longer using that you think is cool, I will probably also think it’s cool and can do cool stuff with it too.
Steven Dickens: And we’ll make sure we get Enzo’s details and put those in the show notes so you can reach directly out to him. I think once the community hears this episode, I think your inbox is going to fill up and there’s going to be a lot of people who are keen to get involved and donate equipment and software so that you and your fellow students can get access.
Enzo, this has been a fascinating conversation. As I said to you before, I interviewed lots of different people in different stages of their career. Haven’t had many high schoolers on. I’ve had some college kids in the past, but this has been a fantastic discussion. Thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Enzo Damato: Thank you for having me. It’s been a really great opportunity.
Steven Dickens: Excellent. Well, you’ve been listening to the I Am A Mainframer podcast. Please click and subscribe. We’ll see you next time. Thanks so much for listening.
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