The maligned and misunderstood mainframe is ready for another round


The maligned and misunderstood mainframe is ready for another round

What can be replaced in favor of newer, more efficient, safer technology? CIOs and CTOs of large organizations constantly ask the legacy question. And not just because the Office of Personnel Management's data breaches have raised this inquiry for the mainframe, with some suggesting its COBOL programming language was the cause. A deeper examination there is warranted, but it’s likely the ultra-secure mainframe was not to blame.

Underappreciated in our cloud-fixated era, the mainframe is in fact the most powerful, cost-efficient technology fueling government databases and applications. It has retained that distinction throughout its 63-year (yes, born in 1952!) history and should prompt us to review our negative perceptions of legacy systems.

How has the mainframe managed this longevity? There are several answers, but one is its ability to constantly modernize, adapt and address the growing technology needs of the times. Look closely and you’ll see that, right now, we are in the early stages of another period of mainframe rejuvenation. Here are the early clues…

Today’s mainframe resurgence

The one bright spot in IBM’s recent earnings was the mainframe. Sales of the new z13 – a machine capable of handling 100 Cyber Mondays every day – grew 9 percent, with 24 percent capacity growth. This was particularly impressive given last year’s strong quarterly performance; IBM’s mainframe business had a difficult revenue comparison to beat.

Another clue is the disconnect between the number of organizations exploring mainframe migrations and the rare few actually executing them. My colleagues and I are hearing this from several industry analysts, with their anecdotal evidence supported by a recent global survey of CIOs showing that 88 percent think the mainframe will continue to be a key business asset in the next decade.

Other notable results from that survey:

  • 81 percent said their mainframe is running new or different workloads than five years ago, and handling greater big data throughput.
  • 78 percent see the mainframe as a key driver of innovation.
  • And in a finding particularly relevant to the OPM breach: 70 percent of CIOs said they were surprised by the additional work and money required to ensure new platforms could match the security of the mainframe.

Challenges ahead

So as today's CIOs grapple with increasing complexity, the need for real-time performance and unmatched security, they are starting to have a new appreciation for the mainframe and investing accordingly. But while some organizations are getting it, many others are not. Several key challenges remain before an organization can have its mainframe investment support the needs of the future:  

Agility. The speed at which applications must evolve or add features is at odds with the slower pace of mainframe development. The mainframe must be more responsive to business needs with more frequent software updates and shorter mainframe development time.

Collaboration. Typically the mainframe was seen as performing set tasks and rarely, if ever, interfacing with other systems. This is out of synch with the sprawling interconnected technologies upon which large organizations now depend. Simplification and standardization in the mainframe ecosystem is coming and will speed this progress.

Brain drain.  Many mainframe engineers are retiring, and organizations must enable the next generation to understand the business logic built into their most critical applications. CIOs can accelerate preparations for this generational shift by providing the right tools, processes and culture to fully leverage their mainframe knowledge base.

Forward-thinking organizations are already rejuvenating and expanding the return on investment of their mainframe investments by addressing these issues. And this process isn’t new. It is simply repeating the historical pattern of the mainframe, which has always managed to keep pace with the times.

So the biggest mainframe challenge may not be about replacing legacy technology, but about reversing legacy thinking.  

About the Author

Chris O’Malley is CEO of Compuware, where he is responsible for setting the company’s vision, mission and strategy. With 30 plus years of IT experience, Chris has led the company’s transformation into becoming the “mainframe software partner for the next 50 years.” Before joining Compuware in 2014, Chris was CEO of VelociData. Previous to that, he was CEO of Nimsoft, EVP of CA’s Cloud Products & Solutions and EVP/GM of CA’s Mainframe business unit, where he led the successful transformation of that division.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Sep 16, 2015 Allen Norfolk, Va

Update: Look at the number of companies that moved from a mainframe to another platform and then back to the mainframe. Lastly - look at the companies making mainframe software and doing consulting/support. They are still around.

Mon, Sep 14, 2015 Allen Norfolk, Virginia

"The Cloud" is another name for "Defense Mega Centers" or DMCs. Back in 1990 multiple commands moved to a few mainframes, each with one small staff. Please note that VMWare and Hyper V have not caught up with IBM's VM, MVS or z/OS of the 1980's. Yes I can defend that statement. Yes, many C.I.O.s are surprised by the server farm required to replace a mainframe. Yes mainframe can run Websphere and LINUX. Its not your Dad's mainframe anymore. Webserver, load balancing, print server, application, storage, backup system, monitors, secure FTP and database all run on big box. Why go with a mainframe? Security. Very few hackers have ever gotten in. In my opinion data breaches happen on windows boxes.

Fri, Aug 21, 2015 Gerard Nicol Denver, CO

The mainframe is simply a box of wires, it isn't misunderstood, what is lacking is a coherent message from IBM. On one hand, IBM will argue that the cost of technical expertise is so great that you have to outsource all labor to them, but on the other hand they will argue that you need to invest more in their platform because it's so dynamic. I'm a mainframe advocate, but I've been burned way too many times by IBM screwing me. Here's an example, I worked at a shop with no DFHSM, so I argued for them to license it. When IBM were invited in to sell the product, they instead tried to sell Tivoli management products for DFHSM. In the end, the shop didn't buy DFHSM because it went from something that would be helpful to something that would be a complete management headache, that needed specialist software just to control it.

Wed, Aug 19, 2015 Jiri Hampl Prague

There is one IBM very important, long time strategy - 100 % HW and SW compatibility. So, if you develop an expensive SW system, you know it will work next year, 10 years later and so on without any change = addition expenses (on the code exec level, not only source level!). Compare it with the competitors (where you have to reprogram the applications for each new OS version, approximately ones in 2 years) and you have the reason why to use mainframe. The reason maybe, that with mainframe you pay the annual fee, you do not owe the system, so the developer does not need to force you to change and pay new OS version and application every year to earn money to survive.

Mon, Aug 17, 2015 Guy Rich

I don't think anyone is really arguing that the so-called mainframe is NOT secure, or is archaic, or cannot handle massive workloads. What's keeping the new generation of service bureaus(aka "the Cloud") from adapting System z machines are two factors: 1) TCA (Total Cost of Acquisition) and what the ROI will be. It's still an hefty proposition in terms of cash for the hardware and the supporting software. Now many arguments have been made about the mainframe's TCO is actually lower than a comparable x86 based system. However the fact still remains it's cheaper to lease a server-farm, and software. 2) An apparent lack of skilled z/OS professionals. The perception that skilled z/OS professionals are scarce as "hen's teeth" is very pervasive. To address this issue, more companies need to embrace and engage the three concepts of Telecommuting, Contract workers instead of employees, and onshore outsourcing.

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