IBM z-15 mainframe (IBM Z/YouTube)


Rip and replace no more

In the technology world, people often become fixated on the latest solution: New systems are good, old systems are not. New does not always mean better, however. The wheel was invented thousands of years ago, and no one has improved on it.

It’s the same case for large-scale technology platforms, such as the IBM i or IBM Z. By keeping these systems up-to-date and modernized, organizations are more satisfied with the capabilities of their systems, according to an IDC white paper sponsored by Rocket Software, entitled “The Quantified Business Benefits of Modernizing IBM Z and IBM i to Spur Innovation.” Modernization also keeps costs low. When compared to replatforming, those who invested the same in new hardware spent 1.7% less on project costs when modernizing on IBM Z and 3.5% less on IBM i. Despite attempts at improvement, legacy systems remain the best choice.

This may seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in an industry where innovation is measured in months, systems that have been around for decades are still getting the job done every day. Thousands of government organizations around the world, including many federal agencies in the United States, rely on mainframes and other legacy systems to support a seemingly infinite number of transactions and interactions. In some cases, these platforms were first put in place 50 years ago. How is it possible to meet today’s demands with technology that was first conceived before the mobile phone was even a dream?

The most important thing to understand is that some of today’s legacy applications now run on operating systems and hardware that are actually relatively new. In fact, most mainframes in the world today were built in the last two years. The latest IBM z15 mainframe was introduced in September 2019, and the next generation of IBM Power servers are due to be released next year. Legacy systems are not dusty old computers in the back of an unlit data center. The truth is that these machines are extremely powerful and can process up to 19 billion encrypted transactions a day at 99.99999% availability.

The second thing to keep in mind is that a platform can be compared to a house’s foundation. It’s mostly underground and goes unnoticed unless there’s a problem. If the foundation is built correctly, the structure will stand for many years. Technology is the same. If a platform’s underpinnings are strong, it’s possible to build on and maintain the integrity of the original system.

Of course, technology leaders want to be at the cutting edge of new technology, which is why so many CIOs enter organizations with a mission to rip out existing systems and replace them with new ones. However, once they start looking at the actual costs of making a change and the Herculean effort involved, legacy systems start making a lot more sense in terms of cost, performance and functionality.

The IDC white paper backs up this surprising conclusion with strong data. The research firm interviewed technology leaders from Australia, India, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the U.S. across 31 different industries to get their opinions on legacy systems as well as their experiences with the rip-and-replace model. It turns out that organizations that stuck with existing systems and modernized them lowered annual hardware costs by up to 12.5%, software costs by up to 5.8% and staffing costs by up to 4.6%. The same companies also increased annual revenue by 5% on average. That means government agencies and other large companies can achieve their technology revenue goals without the risk and disruption associated with replatforming.

Of course, cost is only half of the equation. If a system can’t do the job, and an organization is unhappy with the performance, it’s not worth any amount of money. It turns out that legacy systems actually perform as well as or better than their curative replacements. The IDC report revealed that those who modernized in-place experienced satisfaction and system performance rates that were 5% higher than those who chose to move off those systems.

The benefits to cost, performance and functionality support the fundamental advantages of legacy systems: they are resilient and scalable. For government agencies, these qualities are vital, especially during uncertain times when citizens rely on government services to distribute important public guidelines and emergency relief funds. Increased use of online tools to access these services can tax any system, but the mainframe was built to be reliable and flexible to respond quickly to meet demand. This means there is little risk of downtime, so citizens can count on being able to use government sites and services when they need them, while keeping their personal data safe.

The crucial role that legacy systems and their reliability play in operational efficiency also extends to remote teams and workloads. While employees work from home, mainframe systems ensure that processes run smoothly so that everyone stays connected. 

How do legacy systems remain relevant today? The answer is that all the organizations that build technology for these systems are constantly innovating by creating tools that enable modern functionality. For example, any mainframe can be accessed through a mobile device even though the systems pre-date mobile by many decades. Legacy systems allow documents and files to be stored in the cloud, even though they were invented during an era of magnetic tape storage. And most importantly, thanks to new interfaces and emulators that facilitate development using Python, Perl and Javascript, anyone can program a legacy system even if they don’t know languages such as BASIC, Assembler and COBOL.

That’s the essence of modernization right there: Programming languages, interfaces and user experience are constantly evolving even as the foundational system in the background continues on its silent and often unheralded journey.

About the Author

Jeff Winter is the chief marketing officer at Rocket Software.


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