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Industry Insight

Long live mainframe

The mainframe as an instrument of change is as relevant today as ever.

It's been said many times in the past few years, but should be said again: the mainframe hasn't gone away – quite the opposite – it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In a world where cloud computing presents a move back to centralisation of resources, the mainframe is thriving.

So why is this relic of the old economy, which was supposed to have been replaced by better/faster/cheaper alternatives, still around? Why hasn't anything changed? In this series of four Industry Insights, I would like to unpack the findings of a CA Technologies research paper: "Mainframe as a Mainstay of the Enterprise 2012",which demonstrates the relevance of the mainframe today.

Top-line perspectives from this research indicate that, in fact, the reality is that there has been a lot of change particularly in the way IT professionals everywhere are now talking about the mainframe as a future technology. Instead of a legacy architecture that needs high maintenance, the mainframe is firmly at the strategic core of enterprise infrastructures around the world.

"Mainframe as a Mainstay of the Enterprise 2012" is based on a survey of 623 mainframe executives in key markets around the world. The study highlights the transformation in both the function and perception of the mainframe, the corporate backing it receives and the clear focus on the future.

Mainframe's changing role

But, what has changed? Where the mainframe once dominated the network, it now serves as the foundation for other technological innovations. Where it once typically represented the bedrock of a single-vendor architecture, it now nestles within a complex and heterogeneous infrastructure that regularly adapts to new technologies from multiple sources. Where the mainframe was, for a long time, the only way to go, it now fits into a hybrid state with newer paradigms, notably cloud computing.

Today's IT environment now demands mainframe specialists also have multidisciplinary skills. This facilitates easy navigation through legacy technologies, new architectures, emerging innovations and business priorities. While the mainframe has earned its nickname of "Big Iron", in the mobility age it is routinely managed by tiny mobile devices.

What have not changed are the benefits: high throughput, peerless availability, unmatched scalability and security. And in a business environment dealing with unprecedented volumes of e-commerce transactions and unstructured data, among other forces, while maintaining speed, accuracy, scalability and security, the mainframe is an invaluable resource for both enabling and managing change.

The mainframe is the single biggest comeback story in the history of IT – so while it has remained a constant – it has also evolved. What CA's research uncovers is the depth and breadth of the transformation taking place along the way.

Thoroughly modern platform

What emerges is a picture of a platform that is suited to the demands of modern computing, crucially providing resilience combined with flexibility, a key criterion demanded by today's environment where IT has to closely align with business goals. Companies around the world face unique and complex challenges, and they continue to look to mainframe computing to play a key role in helping to overcome them.

The mainframe is the single biggest comeback story in the history of IT.

CA's research attracted responses from IT level decision-makers from a broad cross-section of businesses worldwide. The polling sample spanned the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Australia, China and Asia South (encompassing Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore). More than half the respondents (57%) represent companies recording revenue of more than $1 billion. While there are differences between countries on specific questions, the global results largely mirror those of the United States. As such, it provides an illuminating glimpse into the workings of the modern-day IT glasshouse.

Just two scenarios paint a clear picture of how the dependability, flexibility – and sheer grunt – of the mainframe continue to drive its relevance:

* A US financial company planned to phase out the mainframe at the core of its infrastructure in favour of a distributed model that cost less and was easier to manage. After numerous pilot programmes that struggled to cope with spiralling volumes of incoming data, and the need to ensure a higher level of security, the company is now expanding its mainframe investment.
* Preparing for its largest expansion to date, a US-based online retailer opted for a cloud-based architecture that was flexible, secure and scalable. However, the company determined that the complexity of global e-commerce transactions was best served with a hybrid approach that relies on a cloud model built over a mainframe-based network.

In the next Industry Insight, I will look at the mainframe from a strategic viewpoint.


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