The death of bimodal IT: Why only one speed (fast) will do
- By Claire Bailey
- Feb 16, 2017
Armed with extensive resources and development prowess, companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are accomplishing a major engineering feat -- making web page loads virtually instantaneous. Services like Google AMP, Facebook Instant News and Apple News are conditioning consumers to expect extremely high performance (speed, convenience and availability) in all their online interactions.
So imagine how consumers felt on Oct. 1, 2013, when after much anticipation, the HealthCare.gov website crashed and burned on its day of launch, with problems persisting for weeks afterwards. Former President Barack Obama recently referred to this event as the “biggest regret” of his eight-year administration. It’s just one example of why government IT is often been perceived as a slow-moving, bureaucratic dinosaur compared to the titans of Silicon Valley.
Growing consumer/citizen expectations for speed and convenience are forcing government IT departments to change their ways. Citizens don’t want to visit the DMV on their lunch break anymore; they’d rather go online to renew licenses and remit payment with a few mouse clicks. Government IT strives to streamline basic citizen tasks and save taxpayer dollars in the process -- the government version of what the business world calls the “digital economy.” However, many government IT groups feel shackled by old processes and legacy systems, especially mainframes, which seem conducive to anything but moving fast.
Some industry pundits have responded by dividing IT teams into two camps -- a slow group, focused on maintaining older, highly stable platforms like mainframes -- and a faster group, in charge of developing and releasing web and mobile applications that require greater speed and flexibility. While this “bimodal IT” approach may be an intermediate solution, its permanent adoption is an inevitable road to failure for several reasons:
IT teams are only as fast as their slowest link. Most of today’s web and mobile applications span multiple platforms. Consider the example of online driver’s license renewals. Citizens log onto a front-end web server, complete the application and ultimately submit a payment, typically transacted on a back-end mainframe. Building and modifying this type of end-to-end application requires developers to work on all the platforms touched. If developers are unfamiliar with the mainframe, the entire process can slow way down or grind to a halt. The arcane, unfamiliar “green screen” mainframe environment has a tendency to intimidate and alienate newer developers.
Replacing legacy systems does not work. Most organizations trying to move off mainframes find the process altogether too time consuming and risky. Several return on investment studies have shown the mainframe computing environment is often less costly and complex than the alternative: moving workloads to a herd of industry-standard computers. This is because declines in commodity server pricing have not kept pace with the explosion of mobile transaction volumes.
Not only are organizations keeping their mainframes, but they’re actually increasing their reliance on them. According to one global CIO survey, 88 percent agreed that the mainframe will continue to be a key business asset over the next decade, and 81 percent reported that their mainframes continue to evolve, running more new and different workloads than five years ago.
In IT speak, the term “legacy” implies an outdated or obsolete system. Yet as the survey suggests, mainframes are far from obsolete. Their incompatibility with modern programs and systems is what often gets them unfairly lumped into the legacy category.
Organizations have become starkly aware that no other platform can match the stability, reliability or performance of the mainframe. Recently, the U.S. Digital Service -- the startup-like consultancy designed to help government agencies modernize their IT operations -- told the story of a client that was struggling with a slow website. This agency's web pages were taking between six and 10 seconds to load, which is not good. The client’s engineers blamed slow, legacy mainframes, but data showed the mainframes were actually serving up data in less than six milliseconds. The bottleneck proved to be a poorly performing Java application. In many instances, working mainframe code is gold. Why would any organization want to replace that?
The looming talent shortage. Since mainframes are not going away, they continue to hold billions of lines of code and millions of dollars worth of intellectual property. Government agencies have a hard enough time attracting top development talent away from Silicon Valley, but a career on the slow side of government IT is an even tougher hire. Modern, multiplatform applications will suffer and languish if this perception of “slowness” doesn’t dissipate and if government IT teams can’t get young developers excited about the mainframe’s potential.
So government IT teams are stuck. They can’t drop their mainframes, but they want to digitally transform. They need to attract top developer talent to help take them to the next era, but competition from the private sector is fierce. How can they succeed?
The most fundamental step is to speed up the development processes that support the mainframe. Imagine application developers as a team of relay racers. The goal of the entire team is to ultimately win the race (quickly bring to market cutting-edge applications and modifications that delight users). To achieve this end, the coach doesn’t ask the whole team to slow down to accommodate the slowest runner. Everyone speeds up.
Similarly, government IT teams should not slow down to accommodate mainframe development work. Rather, mainframe development must speed up. Developers should be able to toggle between platforms easily and fluidly, making the mainframe a seamless extension of the broader cross-platform development environment.
The mainframe development environment can now be nearly Java-like. Capabilities like visualization and unit testing -- common in these modern development environments -- can be deployed on the mainframe. This helps increase developers’ confidence, enabling them move quickly while making fewer mistakes. As a by-product of this change, government IT will be better equipped to attract new developer talent.
It can be a mistake, however, to think technology alone will solve the problem. Organizations need a management culture that endorses agility, innovation and collaborative, bilateral workflows, up and down the traditional chain of command. When mainframes are pulled out of their silos and treated as first-class citizens supporting the most cutting-edge mobile applications, newer generations of developers won’t be so resistant to working on them. In fact, the dividing lines between platforms will become so muted that the disconnect will simply no longer be an issue.
When the mainframe is fully integrated into the cross-platform development effort, there are many additional benefits. The mainframe isn’t just kept on life support; rather, organizations can leverage and extend its inherent strengths as a transactional powerhouse while avoiding huge expenditures and wasted tax dollars on less capable solutions. Organizations can then realize the full benefits of being agile, including better developer collaboration, faster time to market, lower costs and improved software quality.
In contrast to a few years ago, we’re now seeing industry pundits reversing their previous rosy views on bimodal IT. According to IDC’s Worldwide CIO Agenda Predictions for 2017, “By 2019, 80% of bimodal IT organizations will accumulate a crippling technical debt resulting in spiraling complexity, costs, and lost credibility.”
Analysts are seeing the shortfalls of two-speed IT and realizing that the right answer -- the only answer -- is mainframe modernization on the platform, overseen by the right management with the right mindset. If they want to succeed in the digital economy, government IT organizations must realize this and adjust to the reality that fast is the only acceptable speed on this highway.