Infrastructure Matters interview with Gary Thornhill

On this episode of Infrastructure Matters, host Steven Dickens is joined by PopUp Mainframe‘s Gary Thornhill, Founder and CEO, for a conversation on enabling DevOps practices and facilitating mainframe modernization through innovative solutions.

Their discussion covers:

– The inception and mission of PopUp Mainframe
– Challenges and opportunities in mainframe modernization
– How PopUp Mainframe integrates DevOps into traditional mainframe environments
– Key benefits companies can achieve with PopUp Mainframe’s solutions
– Future trends in mainframe technology and DevOps


Listen to the audio version



Steven Dickens: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Infrastructure Matters. I’m your host, Steven Dickens, and I’m joined by Gary from PopUp. Hey, Gary. Welcome to the show. 

Gary Thornhill: Hi. Thanks for having me here today. 

Steven Dickens: So Gary, PopUp’s still a relatively new name, lots of interesting background story. Tell me a little bit about your role and what PopUp does within the mainframe ecosystem. 

Gary Thornhill: Yes. My name is Gary Thornhill. I’m the CEO of PopUp Mainframe. We founded PopUp Mainframe back here in October ’22, and we actually did that off the back of a services engagement, actually solving a client problem where they didn’t have any dev test environments to start anything new, so we came up with this concept of PopUp Mainframe. 

Steven Dickens: So, just let’s dive in. Tell the listeners and viewers a little bit about what PopUp does and what this problem statement was that the company was founded to address. 

Gary Thornhill: Yes, so what PopUp Mainframe gives us is that we have this ability to have instantaneous dev test environments. In the traditional mainframe, quite often, all the environments are in use. They come at a cost, because it’s on physical hardware, but what we can do is we can stand up a brand new mainframe environment machine in less than 10 minutes. Then, on the PopUp Mainframe, we have a series of tools and utilities that allow us to replicate and create a production-like mainframe onto a PopUp. 

Steven Dickens: So you mentioned there, and it’s a problem that’s been long-standing on the mainframe, this ability to set up test in dev environments. Obviously, you’ve got to set up the ZVM regions, you’ve got to set up the CICS regions. You’ve got to set up the whole environment in order to be able to do some of that testing, the development. From my conversations with you, PopUp zeroed in on that sort of problem statement and just made that whole process easier. Tell me a little bit more about exactly what that problem is, as you see it, and what that means for some of the clients you’ve been talking to. 

Gary Thornhill: Yeah. I mean, we make no secret that, under the covers of PopUp, is IBM ZD&T, and this technology has been around pretty much 20 years in various guises. One of the challenges of ZD&T, you do need a full project team to have it up and running and optimize it. And so, within an organization, do you have those people already available to do that? So instead, we get straight to the value, and with a PopUp Mainframe, we have a ZD&T that’s fully optimized so all your CICS, DB2, MQ, IMS is all there ready to go and a set of tools that we can actually extract and migrate production and data and with another partnership and tool with Delphix, we can master that. 

And so all of a sudden we have this ability to populate dev test environments that can be set up and down very quickly with masked data, which is ideal for starting mainframe modernization initiatives, doing bits of DevOps, and you don’t have to go anywhere near your existing test systems that are probably in use. So it is a huge accelerator for trying new things. 

Steven Dickens: So Gary, you mentioned ZD&T. That solution has been out there for 20 plus years, lots of deployments of that both in the cloud, on-premises. What’s the PopUp value around ZD&T that accelerates time to value? 

Gary Thornhill: Well, as I mentioned literally you can take an image in Azure or AWS and have that in your private or public cloud in 10 minutes and there’s up and running. 

Steven Dickens: And that’s just unheard of with ZD&T. It’s an integration project, it’s pull it together, you’ve got to have somebody who knows the software, you’ve got to have somebody who knows the infrastructure. I’ve spoken to lots of people and that’s been crucial. So that 10 minutes for me, it kind of sounds a throwaway comment, but it’s absolutely vital. 

Gary Thornhill: And that always impresses clients. If we come in and do a POC and they can log on to, you can either log onto it via ISPF and then we have all the IDE tools as well. So all of a sudden people who’ve never logged onto a mainframe can be logging onto a mainframe in under 15 minutes, for example. But the other things we’ve done with PopUp Mainframe is we have different versions of PopUp Mainframe. One of them we have with BMC, another with IBM, and it has all the DevOps tooling, modern DevOps tooling pre-installed, configured with actual DevOps tool, with pipeline software. We have flavors of Jenkins, GitHub actions. 

So as well as having ZD&T, you have all this other tooling available. So literally if you can connect to Git, which we have plugins for as well that are included, then all of a sudden you can start thinking about migrating out of SCM tooling and you in an effect can make your mainframe dev test just like any other distributed function you have in your organization. 

Steven Dickens: Well, I think the key thing there for me, we’ve talked a lot about IBM, but bringing through BMC, they’ve been doing a lot of work with their developer tools. I spend a lot of time chatting to BMC. There’s a lot of adoption there. So I think that optionality for clients is vital. I think one key theme there that maybe gets lost when we’re talking about the product is how this democratizes and makes it easier for developers. Not only experienced developers, but also people are new to the mainframe. We were chatting off camera talking about people who were new to the platform, people who were trying to get onto these platforms and really sort of get into being a COBOL developer. That’s an interesting thread there. Can you just maybe say more? 

Gary Thornhill: Yeah, so I mean one of the great things is that when you have a PopUp set up, all of a sudden it opens a door to, as we said, available skills within your organization. You always had barriers to entry of becoming a mainframe user developer, you had to navigate the green screen panel. So let’s face it- 

Steven Dickens: And that’s a barrier, right? 

Gary Thornhill: Yes. 

Steven Dickens: I mean if you’re coming out of college and maybe you’ve done Python or Ruby or Java, getting onto that green screen for the first time when you get your job at Barclays or at Citibank or at Wells Fargo or Walmart, that’s intimidating for some of these students who’ve maybe not had access to a green screen platform before. 

Gary Thornhill: And they’re probably thinking, “Oh, why am I even here?” But then if you could actually tell them, “All your skills are relevant on the mainframe”, which is obviously has the most compute and is the most reliable platform in the world, if they can start making change to some of the most important systems in the organization, and this is a reality with a PopUp Mainframe because they can get onto an IDE and they can use the pipeline that’s been established and they can deploy and they can build and deploy their code without having to log onto the green screen. 

And then with the other tools available on the PopUp, just say for example, I don’t know, their test cases break or whatever. We have this rewind your capability with PopUp with our Delphix partnership. So you can run all this testing and literally self-service, click, rewind, fix anything and do it again. And you don’t have to involve another soul in the department. So you can start seeing that if the modern developer has been brought up with DevOps practices, they can just be productive on the mainframe, which is great news for them. But more importantly is even better news for the organization who are thinking, “How are we going to get some new blood and new resource to make change to our organization?” 

Steven Dickens: So I mean I think for me the key takeaway there is it’s not just about a technology. It’s not just about speed in standing up a testing dev environment. It’s also being able to democratize access to the mainframe, be able to make it part of a skills process around how you bring new skills onto the platform. One of the key things I’m interested, we mentioned that the company’s not been going that long. What has it been now two, three years? Tell me a little bit about what the customer reaction has been. Bit of a new proposition, great to see new innovative startups in the mainframe space. What’s been that customer reaction and what have you seen from some of those early engagements? 

Gary Thornhill: Yeah, really good question, actually. 

Steven Dickens: That’s what they pay me for. 

Gary Thornhill: Yes. 

Steven Dickens: That’s how I earn my money doing this job. 

Gary Thornhill: Well, I was just trying to think about a couple. It’s all about who you’re talking to and this is very interesting. So sometimes because you can say you can have a new mainframe. What is that new mainframe you’re going to have in 10 minutes? Is that a real mainframe? Can we run all the same programs and things on a regular physical mainframe? And we’ve actually managed to install and have everything running in every single client. We’ve never not been able to install anything on a PopUp Mainframe. So it is almost too good to be true. 

Steven Dickens: Is that the reaction you get? I mean that 10 minute comment kind of is so transformational for where people have been. Has that been the kind of disconnect? 

Gary Thornhill: Yeah, I guess I sort of looking for what’s the pitfalls here? There must be a- 

Steven Dickens: What’s the catch? 

Gary Thornhill: Yeah, what’s the catch? Obviously they have to pay us for our products and services. So that’s about the only one. But going back to the serious note, one of the main ones is what’s the difference between PopUp and ZD&T? Because everyone knows ZD&T and it’s like, “Well yeah, we tried ZD&T and T and we couldn’t get it working.” And that’s not because it’s a good product because it’s a bit of a science project and Lego kit and there’s bits and pieces. 

Steven Dickens: There’s all the pieces. 

Gary Thornhill: Yeah. 

Steven Dickens: You go and install it basically, is the position from IBM. 

Gary Thornhill: Yeah, that’s right. So when we can actually, and that’s why when we do a client demo at the start of the meeting, we kick off a build and say, “Well, we’ll be logging onto this in another 10 minutes. And then you can see.” And then they can see that and then quite often, the minds begin to whirl and they start understanding what they can do next. And then, they can be a little bit overwhelmed 

Steven Dickens: Is that the reaction you get? 

Gary Thornhill: Well- 

Steven Dickens: It’s kind of, “This has broken through so many barriers, what do I do next?” 

Gary Thornhill: What do you do next? And again, that’s where we can reassure the client. And nine times out of 10 it’s like, “Are you short of clean test environments? Yeah, let’s start there then let’s get some environments in there and they can be completely clean, remove the technical debt, and we can also start thinking about putting this clean data into them. When did you last refresh your data?” And quite often the answer’s between one and four years. And now- 

Steven Dickens: Being able to get that clean fresh data into a new environment and be able to do new testing. So it’s not only just accelerating, it’s being able to do new tests on new fresh data is what I’m hearing there. 

Gary Thornhill: That’s right. And because we have these different flavors that have automated testing tooling on, so quite often there’s no test automation in mainframes, which if you were to go to any modern organization and you don’t do test automation, people would fall off their chairs. But in mainframes, this is reality. So there’s so much ROI and value just to start this, even some unit testing, functional testing. And the great thing is all of a sudden you don’t need to hire mainframe test automation specialists because we talked about democratizing access. You can bring in your existing DevOps skills in partnership with the developers who know their code, off you go. And that can be done in a discrete environment without upsetting anything else. 

Steven Dickens: And that speed to get started, time to value. I mean the key thing for me in all of this is being able to pull in some of those other DevOps kind of practitioners who maybe have previously been looking at the mainframe going, “Don’t really know that, don’t understand it. That’s hard for me to get onto this platform.” If we can bring those in and infuse that DevOps practices and some of those practitioners into the mainframe team, that’s going to freshen things up. 

Gary Thornhill: It does, and it demystifies it because… And this is the thing, all of the DevOps software is available on the mainframe and it does work. It’s just not used. So the PopUp just starts breaking down these rigid structures because you have the art of the possible and you can start small. We’re talking about one or two people can take a PopUp and do something brand new. This is not a great cost as opposed to standing up a huge project team, which mainframes you tend to do this. This is why it always amazes me that people think the mainframe is expensive. The compute power is by far the cheapest per transaction in the whole market, but the cost of change is high because it’s not accessible. So this is exactly what we do with PopUp is you can just start changing your organization where you couldn’t do before. 

Steven Dickens: So fantastic summary of where we’re up to what’s next. What are you seeing as those next turns of the crank for PopUp? 

Gary Thornhill: Okay, so we have the ability to align. So we have different PopUps for example, because obviously we start with ZD&T. So we’re very much aligned to IBM’s release schedule. So we can test 2.4, which is obviously going out quite soon. We have versions of PopUp on 2.5 and even 3.1. For example, if you wanted to regression test all of your onto 3.1, you can do that with a PopUp. But so we are able to help the organizations test and plan and do this work at lower cost. But in addition, we’re starting to align what else is coming down the market. 

So we can align PopUp builds with, for example, if IBM are going to release a whole new testing suite, we can have a PopUp with that. And we’re also looking, we’re going to run a project later this year. We already started kicking it off and that’s having a PopUp ZVDT. So one challenge we have is particularly with the tier ones, is they have this no data can leave the physical mainframe. And because PopUp is on x86, ZVDT, as you know, you can run it either on Linux one or actually on the IRL, on the physical mainframe. 

So all of a sudden, and this is the plan, if we can get a PopUp, ZVDT running on the physical mainframe, then we can have these ephemeral environments with all the DevOps tools pre-installed, running under Delphix that can be forwarded and rewound. And that is going to be a further game-changer, because we’ll have different flavors of PopUp. 

Steven Dickens: Well, the other thing for me there is a lot of these mainframe teams, they want to own the infrastructure and they want to be able to control it. 

Gary Thornhill: And you hit the nail on the head. So a lot of what we’ve done, we’ve spoken to nearly all the tier one, tier twos. Certainly all the tier ones are very interested in what we do because solved a problem. But then the security police will say, “Oh, you can’t do this.” Whereas my attitude is, well obviously in production data leaves the physical mainframe, you have to. So what about looking at changing the process, make it compliant, make it safe, but having this sort of set attitude. And so that is a challenge for us having tier one clients. But we know with ZVDT you won’t have this issue. And so hopefully we can start transforming the way that they work. 

Steven Dickens: So Gary, this has been fascinating for me, always good to speak to new vendors coming into the mainframe space. I think what you’re doing around democratizing access, bringing new people into the platform, infusing some of those DevOps practices, more ingraining those in the platform, I think what you’re doing with speed of execution, it’s a known problem that people need to get testing up and ready. And it’s been a challenge for environments. So I think it’s been really interesting to find what PopUp’s been doing in this space. So thank you very much for coming on the show. 

Gary Thornhill: Thank you very much for having me here and hopefully managed to talk to you again on the next chapter of PopUp. 

Steven Dickens: And we’ll speak soon. You’ve been watching another episode of Infrastructure Matters, where we’ve been talking to PopUp about what they’re doing in the mainframe space. Please click and subscribe and do all those things to help the algorithm as we grow the show here. And we’ll speak to you next time. Thank you very much.