Moving past the mainframe

Mainframes typically power motor vehicles departments, finance and accounting applications as well as social services and tax departments for state governments. But the computing workhorses are at risk of being put out to pasture, according to a recent report.


A better modernization strategy for cloud-obsessed agencies

A hybrid IT approach would allow agencies to take advantage of the cloud while continuing to leverage the mainframe’s unique strengths. Read more.

New role for the mainframe

A "connected mainframe" can drive innovation if it is integrated with the rest of the data center infrastructure and IT processes and open to the outside world, a recent report suggests. Read more.

As the MGT Act rolls forward, it's time to debunk mainframe myths

Modernizing government technology should not mean replacing the dependable mainframe powerhouses that process increasingly complex workloads. Read more.

About 79 percent of respondents to the National Association of State Technology Directors’ mainframe study said they are not seeing future demand for mainframe computing power. What’s more, only 11 percent said more than 30 agencies in their state use mainframe services managed by the central IT organization, while 63 percent said zero to 10 agencies use it.

Nearly all -- 95 percent -- of the state IT managers responding to the survey cited legacy application support as a business reason that motivates their continued use of mainframe computing power. Agencies run newer applications elsewhere -- in the cloud or on distributed platforms, for example. That decreases the need for mainframes and the revenue for the IT shop.

CIOs often have used a chargeback model to finance mainframe operations, where the machines compute millions of instructions per second (MIPS) for agency business applications and the IT department charges those agencies for that service. But now CIOs must decide whether to keep investing in not just legacy applications, but mainframes.

“The question is, is it a sustainable business model?" said Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State CIOs, which worked with NASTD to develop and distribute the survey.  "I would say without hesitation the majority of state CIOs would agree that the mainframe environment is not a sustainable business model for the future.”

“You have a mainframe environment that was designed to serve multiple agencies or hundreds of applications, and as those applications are modernized or moved to the cloud … you have less and less customers,” he said. “Think about this in terms of a hotel. You want full occupancy. If you’ve got 20 percent occupancy, your rooms are going to be a lot more expensive.”

In fact, 47 percent of NASTD respondents said they would not consider growing the mainframe applications portfolio, compared to 21 percent who said they would and 32 percent who were unsure. One option state IT managers are looking at is mainframe as a service, which 71 percent of respondents said aligns with their state’s legacy systems strategy. Of those pursuing MFaaS, 39 percent said the state would hold the software license and maintain the system, while 26 percent would leave it to the vendor.

Those figures line up with a  NASCIO study coming out in October that found that 32 states have already set up off-premises MFaaS or are considering it, Robinson said.

Thirty-two percent of NASTD respondents said they are taking a hybrid approach in which they outsource some mainframe applications and maintain others in-house. Only 5 percent of respondents said they would partner with other states to share mainframe resources for cost efficiencies.

Greg Pennington, who runs the mainframe infrastructure for Ohio’s Department of Administrative Services, said the state uses an IBM z13 mainframe to support the Department of Jobs and Family Services’ job support system, the Department of Mental Health’s patient care services and DAS’ own applications, among others.

“My charge is to not look for applications to move off of,” Pennington said. “It is to provide the infrastructure to allow applications to run on. Therefore, for me, I’m not looking for anybody to move off.”

Still, he’s seeing the mainframe decline. The state’s welfare system, which had run on the mainframe for 30 years, moved off last month to a distributed system, he said -- taking about 30 percent of processing revenue with it.

The IBM machine was installed about a year ago with the ability to run 6,145 MIPS. About two months ago, it was reduced to 5,052 MIPS, and on Sept. 9, Pennington shuttered another engine, bringing the MIPS capability to 4,485.

“From an infrastructure standpoint, we’re looking at options to figure out the most flexible means to currently continue to provide mainframe infrastructure services but have some flexibility to either increase or decrease capacity based on what we’re seeing as far as trends in agency use of our mainframe,” he said. “We have not heard of any new development of applications to reside on the mainframe.”

In the next few years, DAS will likely use an IBM Z cloud or a hybrid cloud to handle the processing that the mainframe has been doing, Pennington said.

Officials from 38 states responded to NASTD’s survey, which was distributed in June.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


  • business meeting (Monkey Business Images/

    Civic tech volunteers help states with legacy systems

    As COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in state and local government IT systems, the newly formed U.S. Digital Response stepped in to help. Its successes offer insight into existing barriers and the future of the civic tech movement.

  • data analytics (

    More visible data helps drive DOD decision-making

    CDOs in the Defense Department are opening up their data to take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools that help surface insights and improve decision-making.

Stay Connected