developerWorks Interviews: Massive data mining and the resurgent mainframe

Two university professors talk about groundbreaking work at the Walton School of Business

Paul Cronan drives the ERP curriculum, and David Douglas is a university professor in information systems, both at the University of Arkansas, Walton School of Business. In this 18-minute talk, Cronan and Douglas talk about the resurgence of mainframe computing, its effect on academic curricula, and the massive data-mining system they are building to share with faculty and students at other institutions.


Scott Laningham (, developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.

25 September 2007

developerWorks: I'm Scott Laningham, and this is a developerWorks and IBM Academic Initiative podcast. Our guests this time are both from the University of Arkansas, Walton College of Business. Dr. Paul Cronin is the MD Matthews Chair in information systems. He drives the ERP curriculum using SAP. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Cronin.

Massive data mining and the resurgent mainframe

Be sure to listen to this interview.

Cronan: Thank you, Scott, I'm happy to be here.

developerWorks: We also have Dr. David Douglas, a university professor in information systems. He teaches the full suite of mainframe courses, including systems management, transaction processing, and databases. Dr. Douglas, thank you so much for making time for this, as well.

Douglas: Thank you, Scott. It's my pleasure to be on the line.

Guest: Paul Cronan

Paul Cronan, Ph.D., is professor of information systems at the University of Arkansas, Walton College of Business. From 1993 to 1995, he was co-director and co-founder of the University of Arkansas Teaching and Faculty Support Center. Cronan serves as past president and executive committee member of the UA Teaching Academy. He was recognized as the 1995 computer educator of the year by the International Association for Computer Information Systems. He is interested in the use of teaching portfolios for the improvement of teaching, and a current project is the development of a state-of-the-art multimedia development and distance-learning center in the college. He teaches database systems, as well as graduate MIS and computer information systems research courses. He is an active member of the Decision Sciences Institute, the International Association for Computer Information Systems, and The Association for Computing Machinery. Cronan received the D.B.A. from Louisiana Tech University and is currently co-director of the College of Business Administration Center for Teaching Effectiveness.

developerWorks: Now, we certainly want to talk about the cutting-edge things that are going on in that intersect point between your two areas of focus at the university. But first, I wanted to ask you about the whole issue of building relevant skills for today's and tomorrow's technology workers ... this idea that large-scale computing and mainframe computing hasn't seemed all that important for a lot of years, but we're seeing a change in that brought about by the enormous computing and data demands of the wired world. And we hear people talk about that. But even with that, I'm wondering, is there still a big hill to climb for universities to better be in touch with what businesses are needing from new graduates? And if so, how have you all been addressing that at the University of Arkansas?

Cronan: This is Paul Cronan, and just kind of thinking about what you said, what we're finding from our companies is that students need to know quite a bit more about the whole business process from the purchase of the raw materials through the manufacturing into the sales and then the collection of the money once they've sold the product — the whole business process.

And when that becomes relevant for us is that as we transition from a PC application to a larger system like a mainframe, the companies are expecting students to have skills that are directly applicable to the job at hand, to solving this business problem. For example, such things as they want the students to have had hands on capability, hands-on experience. They want them to experience the same kind of software that they're going to be experiencing on the job. So, real software. The same with the data sets. Not so much any more these data sets that are textbook-based and everything works, but rather, what would happen if they used a real data set, something that companies are actually using that has the same kind of problems such as integrity problems. The same problems that they would be experiencing on the job for a company. So that's one of the things that we've gleaned in order to overlap industry and business, as well as our academic programs.

Douglas: Now, this is David Douglas, and I'd like to echo and agree with what Paul has said. One of the things that we've done in order to help us interact with corporations, which has been critical for us being able to get the hardware, software, and data sets that we need is, we have an enterprise computing steering committee, and we meet a few times a year. It has really top IS people in there from the major companies. And they help us guide what we are trying to do, and it gives us the contacts that we need to work directly with them in terms of getting the things that we need to accomplish the training and skills that we need for the future.

One of the parts of the question was the mainframe may not have been of emphasis in the past, but it's beginning to resurface as a major emphasis for the future. And that comes out in our enterprise computing steering committee meetings. And the people that come to recruit here, almost all of the major financial companies, large retail and so forth, still use the mainframe as one of their core systems for capturing transactions.

developerWorks: How important do you think this more involved community involving all the parts you're talking about and the communication back and forth, how much more important is that today than it was even 10 or say 15 years ago? The pace of change and how that's accelerating. It must really be impacting how important it is for you all to stay in touch.

Douglas: We could not do anywhere near what we're doing unless we had these communications with the industry people that we have. They are really central to our thinking, what we were trying to do, and their support in helping us get to things that we need to do.

Cronan: Absolutely. In fact, it's changing so fast that by the time a textbook is published, within that textbook has actually changed, it's old. So our textbook really is a very dynamic textbook. We have to be on top of what's going on in industry, and that's where such things as the enterprise steering committee and communications with our companies really makes a difference.

Guest: David Douglas

David Douglas holds the title of University Professor in information systems at the University of Arkansas, Walton College of Business. He was department chair from 1985 to 1998. He served as president of the Decision Sciences Institute -- Southwest Region for 1996-1997, the associate program chair for the Decision Sciences Institute for the 1999 national meeting, and secretary/treasurer for the Southwest Federation of Administration Disciplines. His research interests include pedagogy for distance education, e-commerce, and database management systems/data warehousing/data mining. He received his Ph.D. in computer modeling from the University of Arkansas in 1972.

developerWorks: Yes, our podcast will probably be out of date by the time we get it published, then. [LAUGHTER] I wonder if you, if this might be a good point to ask you a bit more about your individual curriculums in these two focus areas and how you're bringing all these things that you're learning into play in what you teach.

Cronan: I'll go ahead and let David talk about the specifics of some of the courses where we teach enterprise systems. I'll just briefly mention that one of the ways in which we try to teach business process and allow students to understand the overall business process is that we've instituted a number of courses to learn more about the enterprise resource planning (ERP). And with that, a student in the Walton College of Business and students since in the university, no matter what their major, is can actually minor, get a minor, in enterprise resource planning. So through a series of courses, we teach them something about enterprise resource planning and how the business process works. We use the SAP system in order to do that and demonstrate. In the course, we show them how to actually configure and integrate SAP in a business situation. That way, they can learn how it works in the business and how it runs through the whole business: accounting, finance, production and management, manufacturing. And then, of course, in one of the upper-level courses in enterprise resource planning, we show them how to adapt the SAP system to a particular business problem. That's just a sample of how we might be teaching business process.

Douglas:I'll follow up on a couple points that we have. In order to do those things that Dr. Cronin was talking about, you have to have a foundational transaction system. And the mainframe is considered to be the best in the world in that environment. So we teach courses where students learn concepts on the mainframe and the capabilities to do all those things that had to do with using the mainframe to capture transactions to provide that foundational basis, absolutely necessary. This includes open source, which is a big direction that IBM® is going. We include teaching Linux® on the mainframe. We also teach Web development on the mainframe, CICS®, and we use DB2® on the mainframe. This fall, in our course, there's going to be an attempt for all the students that are in the class to ... are going to try to attempt to have them all take the certification exam for the IBM mainframe.

developerWorks: I'm wondering, you know, now with that, if you all could talk a bit about — obviously — this very interesting cutting-edge setup that you're working on involving some really massive data sets on the IBM z900-based system. Could you describe kind of the elements of that system, and then talk about some of the things that it enables people to do?

Cronan: As a part of the enterprise systems, we have the IBM z900 as basically a platform that we can use to teach everything from DB2 all the way through to using complex system MySAP with SAP BW, the Business Warehouse function. On the z900, we're able to utilize very large data sets, very real data sets. We have a data set that we were able to obtain from Sam's Club. That particular data set has over 700 million rows in the transactions table. We have another data set from Dillard's department stores that has something like 120 million transactions. And David will be able to kind of give us a little bit more of how he's using this for demonstration purposes and also assignments in the classes.

Douglas: The z900 system provides the computing platform that will allow us to not only teach internally but make available externally the large data sets for people that are teaching in database classes or data warehousing, or even using the SAP Business Warehouse part for teaching business decision-making or slicing and dicing of cubes. It also allows us to open up and allow other universities to teach Linux on our mainframe, as well as other products that they want to use, like DB2. And this includes international universities. We are working to try to bring online international universities from places like Vietnam, India, China and so forth.

Cronan: And Scott, just as an example of an application of this, with MySAP running on a Linux system using DB2 accessing an example database called Frozen Foods, we're able to give an MBA student — not just our majors, but an MBA student — real experience in actually analyzing the data in order to develop a decision for a business problem.

developerWorks: Were there some other intersect points or examples of what you're able to do with this that you all wanted to mention? I didn't want to cut you off early on that.

Douglas: Well, one other example is, of course, being in the university and a leading research university, we're able to utilize some of this software and hardware in a research context. One example that we're using is we've been working with faculty over at the computer science department and generating synthetic data sets. And one of the ideas that we've been working on in terms of a proposal is to actually generate an ERP data set, an SAP data set, called an R3 data set. And that data set can then be used in conjunction with auditing enterprise resource planning systems so that an auditing firm can go in and audit software, especially SAP software, using a synthetically generated data set in order to test all the points that need to be tested.

developerWorks: Wow, that's fascinating. It makes me wonder: What kind of positions and possibilities for your students is all of this generating? I mean, are you seeing examples already of how it's opening up new vistas for them that would not have been there before all of this?

Cronan: Having a curriculum where students work on the mainframe and coursework for the mainframe has attracted a number of companies to recruit at Arkansas that have not been here before. We've always had this core of WalMart, Datatronics, Dillard's, J.B. Hunt, Tyson's, those kind of people, that have always come. But we're getting people to come recruit from the large financial institutions that do not have headquarters anywhere near here. And internships, as well. The number of internships and potential job opportunities have increased enormously since we've had this resource.

Douglas: Not only at the undergraduate level have students realized really an advantage — a competitive advantage — as they go then to the market, we've found that for our master of information systems students, the graduate students, that there is quite a demand from our companies to provide them internship students, that is, whereby a student would actually work for the company while they're taking classes and learn in that work environment but also give back in a work environment as they're earning a little bit of extra pocket money. And then the other thing that I think has really made a difference is not only are our majors realizing benefits, we're finding that business majors in general — those who major in marketing, or accounting, or finance and management — they have found that using these resources that we have available to them, they become even more productive and certainly even more available in the market for all kinds of jobs.

developerWorks: Do you find that this message about the importance of mainframe skills, do you find that it's making its way from the college of business into the school of computer science and being embraced there? Or is there still a lag in getting back to this idea of how important mainframe is?

Cronan: I think some of the faculty in computer science programs across the country are recognizing that they are important aspects to consider on the mainframe environment. IBM's recent initiative for energy purposes to consolidate 3,900 servers into 30 mainframes captured the attention of a number of faculty members in terms of how much energy savings that's going to be. And not only that, but the fact that there's so much demand for mainframe skills in the job market I think, many faculty are beginning to recognize the importance of the environment.

Douglas: And I agree with David on that — that computer science faculty are certainly seeing the relevance, and the importance, and all the jobs that are available. But I think even more important and where we are challenged is to get this same word out, these opportunities that are available, to get the word out to the high school students and to the high school teachers and the public in general — that jobs are available and that mainframes really make the world tick.

developerWorks: What about the plans to make some of this available to other universities or potentially even at the high school level? What's going on around that in terms of getting more access to what you all are doing there?

Douglas: Well, certainly through the generosity of IBM and the Academic Initiative, one of our goals was to stabilize the z900 system with our data sets, and then open it up to other universities, other students, so that a professor at City University Hong Kong can have the same access as we have, professors at the University of Arkansas. And the student anywhere in the world in any class can have the same access that our students have here in the Walton College of Business.

Cronan: And that's particularly true in that we have. In addition to what Dr. Cronin has said, we really expect to have a number of universities utilize the z900 for their Linux courses. We expect that to grow very rapidly.

developerWorks: So along those lines, when as these things do become available to other institutions, other universities and students, how will they gain access to these resources?

Douglas: Well, Scott, we're trying to make it as simple as possible for faculty members. Right now, they can go to the Walton College Web site — — and there's a pull-down menu called enterprise systems, and under that pull-down they're able to request information on all of these resources that are available to them. And I think shortly there will be a link available to the IBM Academic Initiative.

developerWorks: This must be thrilling, for you all to be working with this kind of stuff and the great expanse of how many people it's impacting, whether students and/or business. It must be really exciting.

Douglas: It's extremely exciting. When we go out to visit with our peers and to tell them about the resources we have, they are just shocked to know about what we have. And then to find out that we're able to share this with them at no cost, and that students everywhere have access to this sort of data and these sorts of applications, they're real excited to hear it. And we love going around and sharing it.

Cronan: And to continue on with that a little bit, one of the advantages of sharing is as we develop course modules, which is another way we intend to share and collaborate with people outside our own campus, collaboration tends to make the courseware better and from different perspectives. So as we continue along this path, it's really exciting to work with other students and other faculty and the data sets that we have to improve the materials that we'll use for teaching and research.

Douglas: This is a good time to be a professor of information systems. It's an exciting time.

developerWorks: And to think that all this learning is going on while looking at Sam's Club data of how many cases of macaroni and cheese that I bought last week. [LAUGHTER]

Douglas: Exactly!

developerWorks: Dr. Paul Cronin, and Dr. David Douglas, both from the University of Arkansas, Walton College of Business. Thank you both so much for making time for us today.

Douglas: You're welcome. Thank you, Scott.

Cronan: Thank you, Scott.

developerWorks: Visit our developerWorks podcast page at for the show notes for this interview. You'll find links to many of the things we talked about here. Also visit the IBM Academic Initiative at I'm Scott Laningham. Thanks for listening.



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