high performance computing (Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com)

The staying power of mainframes

Although a recent survey about mainframe use by state governments found that the computing workhorses are an endangered species, some users and vendors aren’t as sure. The more likely scenario is an IT environment that includes mainframes, cloud and other on-prem platforms.

“Mainframes are here to stay,” said Wisconsin CIO David Cagigal. That’s because the state, like many other organizations in the public and private sectors, needs to process billions of transactions per year on a secure, reliable platform -- two traits of mainframes.

Wisconsin has two mainframes, one in Madison and a backup in Milwaukee, that were deployed in January as part of the state’s plan to cycle the systems out every five years. But it also uses newer technologies: distributed computing platforms and Oracle Exadata for enterprise resource planning transactions such as finance, procurement and human resources.

The state also subscribes to cloud services. For instance, it’s about halfway through moving email to Microsoft Office 365, and it’s adopting voice over IP in the cloud with 3,000 devices already migrated and another 35,000 to go.

“Our future, I think, is rock solid because of the blended solution, or hybrid solution, that we have with other platforms,” Cagigal said.

Decisions to move applications off the mainframe have been based on cost, Cagigal said, but those applications represent a fraction of what the mainframe handles – currently about 16 billion transactions a year -- and doesn’t necessitate doing away with it. In fact, he predicted the mainframe will become more entrenched over time.

“If you look at Obamacare and the increased need for electronic health records, it’s just going to increase the volume, and so therefore we become much more dependent on the mainframe,” he said. “It will grow organically by the volume of transactions but will not grow by the number of new applications.”

And that’s OK, he added, because it’s handling enough processing every day as it is. “The current environment is a legacy environment. It has not changed that much over the years,” Cagigal said. “We really haven’t developed a new application on the mainframe and don’t anticipate doing that.”

Still, a recent study by the National Association of State Technology Directors found that 79 percent of respondents said they don’t see a future demand for mainframe computing power. That can’t be true, Cagigal said, because the processing volume doesn’t go away. Instead, what he sees as more likely is a shift of ownership.

“When people say that they’re being reduced, maybe the mainframes are in the cloud, by a cloud provider, but somebody still has to own a mainframe,” he said.

Sam Knutson, vice president of product management at Compuware, a company whose bread and butter is mainframes, said the platform may be 50 years old, but it’s far from outdated because manufacturers such as IBM have consistently modernized their offerings. The result is single platform on which agencies can run decades-old application code and newer programming languages such as Java.

“Working code is gold,” Knutson said. “If I’ve written code over 40 years, and it has all of the business processes of my state, my agency, my company, that is a massive investment I’ve made. If I was to take that code and rewrite the exact same business process in a different language in a different platform, I wouldn’t have created any value for the citizen. It wouldn’t provide any better service.”

What’s more, he said, mainframes and cloud are complementary. For example, agencies are better served using Office 365 for email than hosting their own system on a mainframe. If they want to move proprietary applications off the mainframe, they’d have to be willing to adjust their processes to what’s available.

Many agencies find that their existing mainframe applications serve their needs and comply with regulations in ways packaged cloud solutions might not. “Two-platform IT is the future of companies, and government entities that are looking at this in a thoughtful way,” he said.

Mainframes have even given IBM’s earnings a boost. Systems revenue, including the new z14-based line, was up 23 percent to $2.18 billion, according to a July MarketWatch article. Analysts had predicted $1.86 billion.

“This is the most enduring platform that you’ve seen out there," IBM Chief Financial Officer James Kavanaugh said during an earnings conference call that month. "We continue to capitalize on gaining new emerging workloads under that platform.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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