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How to Build a Strategic Vision for Mainframe

September 21, 2021 | Best practices

Claire Connor

Claire Connor
Mainframe & IBM i Solution Architect

Mainframes are the quiet workhorse of modern IT. They are a tried and tested way for businesses to rapidly process the large volumes of data necessary for today’s business-critical applications. This ability to securely handle data-intensive workloads also makes mainframes well-suited to supporting the rollout of innovative new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning across the enterprise. 

Sectors from retail to financial services utilise mainframes as the reliable, secure backbone of their IT infrastructure. According to some industry estimates1, the majority of the world’s top banks, airlines, retailers, not to mention 67 of the Fortune 100 companies, all rely on mainframe as their core platform. COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend, with businesses relying on mainframes to help keep critical systems and applications running during lockdown, and as an adaptable platform primed for scaling up computing capacity as demand for online services skyrocketed. 

Indeed, the fact that IBM recently reported strong growth of 49% YoY2 in its mainframe division for Q1 2021 makes clear that there is definite long-term appetite in the market for investment in the mainframe.  

What does this demand look like in practice? 

Ensono recently conducted research of IT leaders across industries to understand how their organisations were using mainframes. Of those surveyed, 84% are currently running between one and four mainframes, with 16% running over five.  

Our findings also confirmed that organisations continue to rely on mainframes for business-critical, data-intensive workloads: the most common applications respondents are running on the mainframe are data analytics/business intelligence, ERP, CRM and accounting. 

A lack of strategy 

However, a persistent issue for the technology is ensuring it continues to deliver value for businesses. In particular, the lure of a rushed migration to the cloud is creating a lack of strategic forethought in how organisations find a long-term place for the mainframe. 

Too many organisations are stuck in something of a stasis in their use of the mainframe. When asked whether their company’s mainframes are adequately meeting business needs, 60% of respondents agreed with the statement. Rather than an enthusiastic embrace of the possibilities offered by the mainframe, these findings point to more of a grudging acceptance of its role in the business. On some level, there may indeed be a level of belief that the mainframe can simply be left as is for now, with investment focused on the shift to cloud. 

Where does this belief come from? 

Many businesses creep into viewing the mainframe as something of a dead-end, with the high costs of maintaining mainframes and a growing mainframe skills crisis combining to push businesses to shift resources and planning to the ‘next step’ in their digital transformation journey. Migration is seen as the answer to solve the ‘problem’. Ensono’s research found 37% of participants have either migrated or retired 26%-50% of their applications previously delivered by the mainframe. 

A mainframe business case 

Instead of attempting to abandon the mainframe, organisations need to build a coherent business case around the technology to ensure their IT infrastructure evolves sustainably to match the needs of the business. 

Mainframe modernisation and optimisation is a key part of that journey. Let me focus on modernisation, the updating or improvement of an organisation’s existing mainframe footprint, allows companies to address some of the most pressing issues facing mainframe hardware. These range from tackling the cost of MIPS (Millions of Instructions per Second), to challenges associated with maintaining legacy hardware from a shrinking talent pool.  

To take one example: by implementing some of the modern development environments available on the mainframe, businesses may not need to hire as many COBOL programmers – a field where talent is always in critically short supply. 

There are further security benefits from the modernisation of mainframes. Even with the robust security assurances offered, more advanced cyber threat actors are creating new risks for mainframes. Bringing IT infrastructure up to date ensures firms can improve their resilience in the face of such attacks, tapping into advances in vulnerability scanning and automated security solutions to keep the mainframe (and critical business data) secure. 

Connecting mainframe to the business 

So many mainframe strategies fail to connect benefits with business impact. Too often discussions within technical teams are left siloed from decisions on budget in the rest of the business. This leaves mainframe strategy unmoored from the direction of travel in the organisation, with budgets left focused on short-term ways to address lingering problems in mainframe without connecting them to the long-term solutions offered by a comprehensive modernisation programme. 

Crucially, at the heart of the mainframe business case is one inescapable reality: an effective modernisation programme can readily turn it into an engine of innovation for the enterprise. A modernised mainframe can provide a host of added value to the business, shifting infrastructure to an agile set-up that is essential to keep up with rapidly evolving end-user expectations.  

In essence, modernisation disentangles the mainframe environment, simplifying the set-up for the next phase in the evolution of a business’s technology stack. This streamlines the process for organisations to quickly start rolling out microservices and other innovative technology; data analytics for enhanced insights into business operations or supporting the roll-out of next-generation artificial intelligence and Internet of Things applications – the list goes on. And for an organisation looking to move off mainframe, modernisation removes complexities and makes the environment better suited to embark on that endeavour.  

Envisioning a future for mainframe 

Moving forward, businesses need to take a realistic assessment of their mainframe ecosystem. There needs to be a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, bringing together all relevant stakeholders to weigh up the financial risks and opportunities, and chart a new course for mainframe that is right for the organisation.  

This very rarely equates to a binary choice between modernisation or migration. Indeed, the business-critical nature of applications running on mainframes makes a straight ‘all-in’ shift to the cloud a potentially disruptive and risky venture – particularly for larger corporations with limited capacity for any significant system downtime. 

Investment in mainframe through a modernisation programme offers businesses an effective route to the best of both worlds. It avoids potential disruption and opens the door to hybrid infrastructure options, with business-critical applications supported on mainframe but optimised to smoothly interact with other functions running in the cloud. In this manner, organisations can use a modernised mainframe as a platform for the next phase of the organisation’s digital transformation journey. 

1https://www.ibm.com/thought-leadership/institute-business-value/report/application-modernization-mainframe 

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