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The mainframe is dying. Again.

In the fast-moving world of technology innovation, mainframes aren’t the problem; organisations are.
Read time 6min 30sec

The rumours of the mainframe’s death, like Mark Twain’s, have, once again, been greatly exaggerated. And for those asking if the mainframe is dead, the answer is no. In fact, it’s probably slightly annoyed and more than a bit depressed about the situation, especially as it’s still one of the most reliable and robust environments for the digitally agile organisation. With the right integration and applications, the mainframe can potentially be one of the most powerful tools in the digitally transformed organisation’s arsenal.

The BMC Mainframe Research Survey 2018 found that not only was the mainframe alive and well, but that high-level executives and technical professionals were kicking it into touch, scaling and modernising the mainframe for a new era of business. It’s the foundation upon which they’re building their DevOps and digital organisations and is considered one of the most trusted platforms available for the reliable management of the digital business. And no, the respondents weren’t creaking, borderline ready to retire COBOL programmers. The survey was taken by more than 63% of people under the age of 50, and 92% of those respondents predicted the long-term viability of the mainframe.

This doesn’t mean that organisations that have built their foundations in the cloud or on virtualised solutions are now doomed. What it means is that there’s room for new technologies and solutions on the market that can help the organisation achieve specific digital goals. But using them doesn’t have to be at the expense of the mainframe. According to Dirk le Roux, MD, Sprinthive, this question arises in IT all the time as people look for reasons why they aren’t innovating or why they aren’t cutting the bleeding edges like their competitors. The mainframe isn’t the problem, the organisation is. Enterprises don’t innovate because they have the best technology; they innovate because of how they’ve enabled people and processes.

Perhaps the right question should be – if the mainframe is so old, why is it still around? There have been new architectures declaring war on the mainframe for years. There was the service-driven architecture that threatened the mainframe, then there were micro-services, then there was the client-server application. All were put forward as the hot competitors to the mainframe and none succeeded in leaving it lying, bloodied, in the dirt. You’ll likely struggle to find a client server application today, but the mainframe, it’s right over there, powering that agile organisation.

Mainframe technology has stood the test of time for multiple reasons, but the survey by BMC found that one of the most compelling was how it enabled modernisation. If integrated properly, the mainframe can allow for the organisation to rapidly iterate and adapt to the digital environment. The key words here are ‘integrated properly’. As with any technology, blending the old with the new requires a deft touch and a solid understanding of outcomes, languages and integration protocols. Many organisations have recognised the value of the mainframe, focusing instead on integration and application adaptation instead of looking for a trash heap upon which to lay its remains. Most are looking to how it can be used to embrace new technologies and leverage digital transformation from a solid and sustainable base. No, the mainframe isn’t dead, but the funeral for client server applications will be held on Wednesday.

Back to the future

The experts weigh in on the mainframe considerations for 2020 and beyond. 

Brainstorm: Organisations have shown that the cloud is clearly a part of the future, but what role does the mainframe play in this future?

Gary Allemann, MD, Master Data Management: Many organisations have tried and failed to move away from the mainframe. Recently, one such organisation tried to move its payroll to an open source operating system, one of the most widely used brands globally. However, the first time this was run, it took approximately 45 days to complete. This is because nothing can replace the pure processing power of the mainframe.

Dirk le Roux, MD, SprintHive: Perhaps the best way to explain the validity of the mainframe is to talk about how Amazon recognises that software breaks over time and needs constant attention. The company believes that if it takes 10 people to write it, then it will take 10 to maintain it, so it allocates people to do just that. They keep it up to date, they police it, and they understand how any changes impact on systems both upstream and downstream. With the mainframe, it’s been polished and worked on and managed for years. It’s the equivalent of a painter meticulously standing back and fixing one small thing each time for more than 20 years. This is innovation, incremental innovation.

Brainstorm: What are the challenges that affect the business when it comes to managing an existing mainframe?

Allemann: The mainframe can be regarded as the original 800-pound gorilla, big data platform that can quickly process enormous volumes, varieties and velocities of information. Organisations need to connect their mainframes to new technologies in order to perform modern-day analytics. In addition, agility is certainly impacted by using the mainframe. However, this is because the mainframe is misunderstood. The mainframe runs numerous mission-critical applications at one time, but there are ways to configure it to integrate with new technologies that can make the business more agile.

Le Roux: The skills shortage. There are very few people left who know COBOL and these old languages and have the right skills. Many of the people who work on the mainframes today are retiring and few new people understand the required languages. There’s a deadline and it’s fast approaching.

Dave Joyce, MD, Nimble Technologies: Without a doubt, a lack of skills is the major challenge. As the technology is so niche, there are very few skills available and the knock-on effect is that these skills have become extremely expensive.

Sayeed Ismail, IBM server specialist, BCX: The challenge is to integrate the mainframe into the modern era of emerging technologies such as cloud, analytics and artificial intelligence, and to overcome the perception of high cost. There’s also a lack of understanding around the value of mainframe technology and the quality of service it delivers, the real total cost of ownership, and its overall agility.

Brainstorm: What are the benefits of remaining on the mainframe?

Allemann: The pros of the mainframe far outweigh the cons. It provides reliability, availability and performance. Furthermore, one can’t beat the processing power of the mainframe; ignore the fact that it’s inexpensive when properly used, and, more importantly, that it’s secure.

Joyce: Speed of processing is faster with mainframes and the institutional knowledge gathered over many years due to the historic investment is incredibly valuable.

Ismail: There are numerous benefits, including the 100% utilisation of CPU resources compared with the 30% to 70% of other platforms, the inherent strength of operating system security, the ease of data sharing, unrivalled scalability and optimum resource utilisation.

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