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The Mainframe – no longer a legacy platform?

Oliver Presland

Oliver Presland
Vice President, Global Consulting Services Portfolio

To many people, the term ‘legacy’ has negative connotations: expensive; rooted in the past; and poorly adapted to modern agile and cloud-based approaches to development. If that’s true, then we should stop referring to the mainframe as a legacy technology – because it is none of those things.

Wikipedia defines a legacy system as, “an old method, technology, computer system, or application program, of, relating to, or being a previous or outdated computer system,” yet still in use. It’s a term that is synonymous with mainframe technology; yet the new z15 mainframe recently announced by IBM – with consumption-based pricing and support for modern development technologies and containers – is very much a platform for today.

The ‘Mainframe 2020 and beyond: major market trends and opportunities’ webinar – by Computer Weekly in partnership with Ensono and IBM – skews many of the negative perceptions that people may have about mainframe computers. It also highlights how companies that are choosing to invest in the modernisation of their mainframe estate are using its power and availability to deliver on their companies’ digital transformation aspirations. Without pre-empting the content of that webinar, it’s worth addressing some of the issues it raises – particularly with regard to cost, relevance and skills.

Objection #1 – “A constant drain on my IT budget.”

There clearly are fears around the financial models associated with the mainframe – namely that huge up-front capital investments are required. The reality is quite different: Ensono has recently introduced mainframe-as-a-service — tailored to fit pricing based on a rate card for usage metrics such as Logical Partitions and (LPAR) and Million Instructions Per Second (MIPS). This brings it much closer to the consumption-based models that the big cloud providers offer.

The webinar also references research from IDC which found that – far from being a drain on IT budgets – mainframe modernisation projects were generating an ROI of 6.2:1. This came not only from savings of almost 20% of operating costs when compared with unmodernised mainframes: all the companies that IDC interviewed also reported significant increases in revenue as a result of modernisation.

Objection #2 – “It’s completely unsuited to the agile world we live in now.”

The latest iteration of the IBM mainframe was four years in the making and there are over 3,000 IBM patents issued or in process relating to the z15 platform[1]. Many of these relate to how the business data stored on the mainframe can be connected in a simple and seamless way to modern agile development practices – including support for Docker, containers and integration into open source DevOps code pipelines. Also, cutting-edge requirements for security are being satisfied by the mainframe with remote security controls being provided for data passed from the z15 to cloud platforms. So, the mainframe has evolved to become a real player in the cloud environment of today.

In fact, one of Ensono’s large clients completely modernised its mainframe application stack by: upgrading all data management tools, using Linux on mainframe as their preferred operating environment and largely replaced COBOL code with Java. The organisation’s focus is now on releasing code more quickly so it can respond to the needs of the business in a more timely fashion – just one example of how organisations are reaping the rewards of mainframe modernisation.

Objection #3 – “The baby boomers with legacy skills are all leaving the workforce.”

The absence of mainframe skills like Assembler, JCL, COBOL and CICS is being used as an excuse to not place new workloads onto the mainframe platform. While it’s true that there are mainframe resourcing challenges, these are being addressed by organisations such as Ensono and IBM through mainframe academies.

Ensono works with a number of universities as part of what we call our mainframe academy which is creating a vibrant pool of young people who work across some of the world’s largest businesses to support their critical workloads. In fact, we are being approached by clients to create mainframe academies for them – and Ensono’s argument is that young people can enjoy a long and lucrative career in the mainframe environment, with an often-enviable starting salary.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain

This Mark Twain quote is perfectly appropriate for the mainframe of today. These ‘legacy’ platforms have been written off for decades by some, whilst quietly going about their business underpinning some of the world’s most critical applications and consumer services. Their transactional performance, security, availability and resilience are hard to achieve on other environments – and so mainframes remain an ongoing feature of the IT estate.

So, the evidence suggests that we are not seeing mass migration away from the mainframe – in fact, efforts to move these workloads to the cloud frequently end up burning cash rather than delivering real business value and return on investment. It is true that data centre estates are evolving into hybrid estates with legacy and mainframe platforms both being deployed – but we are now seeing new workloads appearing on the mainframe which gives the lie to its description as a legacy platform.

[1] ‘IBM unveils z15 enterprise platform with “industry-first” data privacy capabilities’

[2] ‘Why the mainframe remains a crucial foundation of the banking sector’

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