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Where next for the mainframe, part 2 - drivers for change

Risk, costs, legacy modernisation, lacking innovation and the need for agility are all drivers pushing businesses away from mainframes today

The main reasons for exploring the question of mainframe migration are well documented, and the principle considerations are highlighted below. However, the fundamental question that must be answered is, "What's the business purpose for the change?" Each business is different, with its own set of desired outcomes and drivers. You must consider each of the drivers described below in the specific context of their relevance to your business and the needs of your customers - not simply based on some of the myths regarding mainframe platforms that permeate the industry.


Cost


Premium hardware and operating system costs for mainframes, compared to different platforms running Linux or Windows, are a key consideration.


In addition, software maintenance costs will be higher due to lower software development productivity in mainframe environments. This is because mainframe developers have typically not embraced modern agile development approaches, meaning that software changes are more time-consuming and therefore more expensive. This also is a factor in terms of agility and responsiveness; the ability to implement changes rapidly in response to business needs and customer demands will be constrained by this lack of an agile approach to mainframe software development.


There is a further aspect, which manifests itself as a vicious circle of rising mainframe costs. As the TCO of alternative platforms and technologies drops compared to mainframes, more companies consider migration, resulting in the costs of supporting mainframe platforms being shared across a diminishing number of business processes, causing costs to rise faster and thereby driving more the business to adopt alternative solutions even more quickly.


Risk


The demographics of the people resource with mainframe skills represents a significant risk. The age profile of software developers with mainframe skills is heavily skewed towards maturity, and these people are retiring at an increasing rate. Replacement with individuals from the younger generations is limited, as mainframe skills are not considered attractive in terms of career potential.


Resourcing is also a risk: both in terms of being a constraint on development capability, and on the ability of an organisation to provide business continuity.


There are risks associated with mainframe software, which is often decades-old and with little or poorly maintained documentation. They are based on outdated programming techniques, making it harder to change the software, and fewer people know the computer languages in which the software is written. In addition, while some aspects may have been modernised - for example by gaining a web-based front-end that provides browser access - the core programs remain largely the same as when they were originally written.


From the perspective of security, the mainframe itself has the highest server security rating in the industry; however, legacy systems are almost always more at risk from cyber-attacks, malware and even hacking, as they were developed in the days before cyber-attacks were as widespread as they are today.


Agility


In an increasingly digital world, software and systems often determine a business's ability to respond and adapt to market trends and remain competitive. Changes in customer behaviour, coupled with marketplace shifts, impact key business applications. In this context, possessing the speed to stay ahead of the competition is vital. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this; companies are now re-evaluating how they can rapidly deploy their digital capabilities, understand the impact on both their value chain and supply chain, and enable innovation to meet the needs of their consumers and employees.


From banking to retail to government agencies, large organisations face competition from new and nimbler disruptors encroaching on their market, driving them to become more competitive.


Given that software is at the heart of many of the services organisations provide to their customers, the ability to rapidly implement and deploy changes to reflect market demand is critical. In this respect, the mainframe is especially exposed - partly due to the issues associated with skills shortages and outdated development approaches highlighted above, but also because legacy systems can bind businesses to workflows that are no longer efficient in today's environment.


Despite the costs and potential disruption, modernising legacy IT systems and software to modern digital and agile platforms can provide the opportunity to deliver enormous benefits over time through substantially reduced development timescales, which enable rapid deployment of new services in response to dynamically changing markets.


Migrating mainframe workloads to the cloud results in greater business agility. Containerisation makes applications significantly more agile as it means they can be deployed quickly and re-sized on-demand, and can be exploited both in the cloud or on-premises. Containerising on-premises applications enables you to amortise your existing infrastructure investments whilst providing a fast path to the cloud. The cloud offers pay-as-you-go pricing and easy access to a wide variety of computing infrastructure, without the need for IT support teams to be skilled in a potentially vast number of hardware platforms.


In addition, migrating off mainframes provides an opportunity to embrace modern database technology, enabling applications to scale horizontally to accommodate substantial increases in data volumes. It also enhances performance and concurrency by spreading existing data and workloads across ‘unlimited' commodity servers.


In summary, containerisation and scale-out databases coupled with a larger talent pool can make a substantial contribution to greater agility.


Future Innovation & Investment


The high cost of developing and launching new services on the mainframe limits their availability. Many software vendors no longer develop their software packages for mainframes, limiting access to best-in-class software packages and resulting in functionality shortcomings.


Whilst IBM and other mainframe-aligned providers will argue that they still invest in mainframe innovation, they are really just keeping up with technology that exists on other platforms, as opposed to helping the mainframe lead the digital age.


Consequently, some mainframe applications are in threat of being left behind as businesses embrace digital transformation based on distributed computing and public clouds. This is due largely to the view that it is not fashionable to invest in mainframe services, coupled with a perception that it is extremely challenging to modernise mainframe applications.


Legacy Modernisation


IT managers are increasingly compelled to embrace a drive to the cloud and big data, as part of a legacy modernisation agenda to:

  • manage explosive data consumption

  • eliminate repetitive, disconnected systems and improve integration

  • gain agility and cost savings through platform migration

  • achieve regulatory compliance

  • reduce code complexity

  • increase speed to market / agility to adapt and respond

  • leverage technology developments

  • prepare for a change in technological skills and business knowledge

Big data approaches and new software capabilities are modernising mission-critical applications that have served businesses well for years; for example, insurance systems no longer simply manage policies and claims: they need to integrate new data sources to power AI, and use machine learning techniques to score risk, detect fraud or money laundering and understand what additional options a policyholder might be interested in. Mainframes are not able to support AI capabilities, forcing businesses to migrate to newer platforms or to add more complexity to wrap solutions around the mainframe


However, mainframe migration potentially offers established enterprises the means to keep pace with, and even leapfrog, their upstart competition which have been built on big data and AI from the outset - enabling applications that need high performance and scalable, consistent, flexible access to data to do their jobs. When companies swap out their mainframe infrastructure to a converged platform, they instantly benefit from the ability to exploit data and AI to make operational system-of-record workloads, analytical reporting and automated actions smart.


In summary…


Every CTO and CIO, consulting and outsourcing company will have an opinion on whether the mainframe is a piece of legacy equipment that is no longer worth investing in, but their views are often tainted by what is perceived to be fashionable in the IT industry - not by what the business needs today and tomorrow to support what really matters - its customers. Too often, the perception that the mainframe is yesterday's technology choice means it does not get considered as a viable platform to be invested in as part of the company's IT strategy.


Last time, we looked at the history of the mainframe and its use in business today. The next part of this series will examine alternative strategies for mainframe support or replacement, and how to determine which one is right in the context of your business goals and outcomes.


Created by Elisabeth Ash who is the customer journey manager at New World Tech (NWT)

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