Saturday, 20th July 2019
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Myth-busting the mainframe

Despite the fact that mainframes are helping 96 of the world’s top 100 banks and 70 per cent of today’s Fortune 500 Companies run, I’m still amazed at how many business conversations I have with people who balk at the mere mention of mainframes, viewing them as outdated, ‘dinosaur’ tech. This includes CIOs whose own organisations rely on them. By Guy Tweedale, regional VP, Rocket Software.

To be fair, I also speak to my fair share of CIOs who understand the value of their business’s mainframes, keep them up to date, integrate them with other technology platforms and have no plans to trade them in. In fact, I’d say the people I speak to about mainframes fall into three major categories: the believers, the sceptics and the aforementioned naysayers.

Generally, I find what separates the three groups is a lack of understanding of the role and value of mainframes and some fairly prolific myths that paint the technology either as 1960s-style room-sized computers whirring and clicking away with spinning tape reels, or dusty boxes hidden in a corner that cost a fortune and have long since outlived their usefulness.

Beware the naysayers

When someone tells me they are determined to shut down their mainframe because; no one in the business uses it anymore, it’s just taking up space and eating into costs, warning bells go off in my head. It’s not that I believe every business needs or should have a mainframe – they are not a good fit for every organisation and some are indeed better off without them. It’s just that as the technology is often misrepresented and misunderstood, I find that many businesses don’t fully understand their usefulness or, worse, the fact that a mainframe isn’t a technology that can just be ‘switched off’. It needs to be carefully decommissioned and phased out over time; a process that takes meticulous planning and years to accomplish, to avoid compromising data and business operations.

The first thing I ask naysayers to confirm is what exactly is on their mainframes and what systems are linked to it. If they can genuinely answer – and prove – that there is nothing mission critical running on their mainframes and that it hasn’t been functioning in the background of the business for an extended period of time, then I wish them good luck, caution them about keeping their data secure during the migration and advise them to dedicate an IT team to the safe decommissioning of the mainframe, allowing at least 5 years to phase it out before they turn it off entirely.

It must be said that this is rarely the case when it comes to mainframes – most ‘naysayers’ are really ‘sceptics’ that have been worn down by mainframe myths, or simply lack the longevity in their job roles to understand how much data and how many systems their business’ mainframes are actually underpinning. And there is hope for the sceptics.

Educating the sceptics – risk v retention

For every cynical comment I’ve heard about mainframes, I’ve found that most are rooted in an ignorance of the technology and just how prolific it is. Most of the sceptics I encounter are convinced their mainframes are no longer adding value to the company, that the business is weighed by down by the ‘legacy’ tech and now uses the cloud for everything.

I have nothing against the cloud and think the agility and accessibility of it is a great asset for business, but I find most mainframe cynics and sceptics I speak to don’t realise that being in the cloud is not mutually exclusive to using a mainframe. In fact, many companies use both successfully – keeping their customer data safely held on mainframes while using APIs to link to cloud-based CRM or payments systems to power their loyalty programmes and personal marketing, for example. In these and other similar cases, relying on a mainframe to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of data processing helps businesses run more efficiently as well as helping to reduce security risks by avoiding the unnecessary movement of data.

Extracting data from a mainframe not only makes it vulnerable by opening up security holes, it is also a painstaking and expensive process that affects the latency of the data. Extracted data is captured at a point in time and therefore any analysis is not based on real-time information. Instead, data virtualisation can be used to read the current data housed on the mainframe at any given time, providing accurate and up to the minute real-time data.

Getting down with the kids

Data security and analysis issues aside, the other issues I’m confronted with from the mainframe sceptics is that the technology hasn’t moved on, is archaic and past its prime. This just isn’t true. The latest generation mainframes are far from dusty old boxes, they are modern machines with modern operating systems - up to date, cloud savvy, upgradeable and vastly scalable – you can develop apps on them and you don’t need to know COBOL to programme them. Python, Java or C++ will do just fine!

Even businesses with older models can keep them up to date using modern tooling. Extending proven applications - including ‘green screen’ apps - as new web and mobile experiences without recoding, opening up your applications and data to a wider audience and attracting the next generation of programmers.

Bringing open source to the world of Big Iron

What’s more, the growth in the use of open source technologies has led to plenty of conversations with sceptical CIOs about how to marry up the mainframe with the fact that just about every programmer today seems to be relying on tools and apps that aren’t restricted to specific platforms.

Zowe, which was introduced in August, goes a long way to address this. It’s the new framework that enables any technology stack to be agile and responsive as businesses become more tech-enabled. It’s completely open and purpose-built for z/OS users. Zowe allows for cross-company product integration for the very first time, meaning we’ve literally broken down the walls that have made universal mainframe development so challenging. A number of companies - including IBM, CA and Rocket - are committed to this framework and to building products, solutions, and experiences on top of it.

So, whether you’re a naysayer, cynic or a believer, the bottom line is that mainframes can always add more value to your business than you may realise. I challenge you to take a closer look at what your mainframe is doing for your business – and how, with a bit of help from modern technology, it can do even more.

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