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10/19/2005
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Jill Gambon
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Big Companies Woo Students To Run Datacenter Systems

Faced with a shortage of administrators for enterprise systems, companies such as IBM and Unisys are offering students internships to learn to run mainframes and other big iron.

Forging connections between the students’ research and the actual needs of the business community was a goal of the contest. Unisys board member James J. Duderstadt, who is president emeritus and a professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, urged the company to expand such opportunities, Rodner says. “A lot of college students are doing excellent research, but it’s in a bubble. We wanted the students to interact with the open source community and with the business community.” For those unfamiliar with the workings of a data center, the Data Center Linux list was a little daunting, says Dr. Jeanna Matthews, an assistant professor of computer science at Clarkson University and an advisor to the students who won the first TuxMasters competition. “Some students aren’t familiar with enterprise needs, Matthews says.

To get the TuxMaster competition off the ground, Unisys marketed the program to a group of 16 universities with which it has existing relationships and it promoted the contest at the Linux World trade show. In the first round, 10 teams from 8 different universities submitted projects. The winning submission came from a team of two Clarkson graduate students who developed a database exploration tool that aims to make database queries more efficient. Matthews says working on real business problems brings an added level of rigor to the students’ work. “I try hard to give students a taste of the computing real world,” she says. Clarkson students have won several other computer science contests in recent years and the recognition from private businesses is a great motivator, Matthews says. Unisys has launched a second round of the competition and winners will be chosen early next year.

In an era of iPods and wireless networks, drumming up interest in big iron among college students is an ongoing challenge. SHARE Inc., an independent user group of IBM customers, is working with Big Blue to attract young IT professionals to mainframe careers. “We’re trying to overcome the misperception that the mainframe is dead,” says Robert Rosen, president of Share. With much of the mainframe workforce heading to retirement age, Rosen and others worry about a potential shortage of skilled workers in the years ahead. In August, Share and IBM launched the zNextGen initiative, which is an effort to offer mentoring, networking and career guidance to students and young IT professionals interested in mainframe work. “As businesses become more reliant on computer systems, security, reliability and availability are important, and they are all hallmarks of the mainframe,” said Rosen. “This is really front line technology.” IBM has taken several other steps to meet its goal of training 20,000 mainframe professionals by 2010, including an academic initiative to provide professors and students at more than 150 colleges with mainframe access and a related curriculum.

Perhaps more important than imparting technology skills, the corporate-sponsored education and training programs offer students the chance to learn how technology can be applied to improve business. “From our customers, we hear that they need bright graduates who understand IT, but who also understand the business and how to solve the problem of translating business requirements into technology,” says IBM’s Grigoleit.

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