Value in mainframes? Depends on who you ask
Cost, skill and lack of agility or innovation hinder this baby boomer technology. That doesn't mean it is museum-bound.
Imagine you're a CIO. Talk of cloud swirls around you constantly. Peers are discussing the merits of digital transformation. Industry analysts are saying modernize, or be left behind.
You take a cold, hard look in the mirror and admit: My company is still running a mainframe.
Mainframes date back to the early 1950s, debuted by IBM, which still offers new releases for the technology. The systems became the backbone of enterprise computing, favored in highly regulated sectors like banking, insurance and government.
Mainframes could keep operating for years, with occasional outsourcing for maintenance. But finding people to work with mainframes is increasingly problematic and the technology is so interwoven into underlying systems, modernization appears as an almost insurmountable hurdle.
Organizations were drawn to mainframes because they are resilient, secure and reliable, able to run 99.9% of the time, said Dale Vecchio, a former Gartner analyst who now serves as the CMO of LzLabs, a software company with software defined mainframe technology. IBM says its mainframe uptime is higher, at 99.999%.
Companies began running mainframes 40-50 years ago, said Vecchio, in an interview with CIO Dive. And because of the reliability, a mainframe programmer could find code they wrote still running 30-40 years later.
Mainframes could keep operating for years, with companies bringing the occasional outsourcing partner in for maintenance. But finding people to work with the mainframes is increasingly problematic and the technology is so interwoven into underlying systems, modernization appears as an almost insurmountable hurdle.
The leading problems with mainframes are cost, skill and lack of agility or innovation, said Vecchio. There is a point at which the skills start to decline because mainframes are a "baby boomer platform."
Mainframe applications are considered important — even highly mission critical — to 99% of senior IT decision makers, according to a LzLabs and Microsoft report. The study, conducted by Vanson Bourne, surveyed 500 senior IT decision makers from organizations in the public and private sector using mainframes.
More than 70% of respondents say the inflexibility of mainframes limits innovation; and four in five struggle to modify existing mainframe applications.
Industry is leaving mainframe technology behind, in favor of cloud and open source. Three-quarters of respondents say their organizations should have already begun migrating off mainframes to avoid business risk, including cost increases, "loss of competitiveness" and revenue loss, according to the report. Almost 95% of respondents would consider migrating away from the mainframe altogether.
The reliance on mainframe and the difficulty of transitioning has created a key problem: "The most common modernization strategy is procrastination," Vecchio said.
The case for keeping the mainframe
Though IBM is left the dominant producer of mainframes — and has a vested interest in keeping the profit stream alive — the technology is not stagnant. Releases come out regularly tweaking systems, and programs have undergone modernization.
The technology grows with each new expansion, said Steven Boyd, senior mainframe system programmer at Ensono, in an interview with CIO Dive. It's always updated and does not run in the same capacity companies would see 30 years ago.
Boyd, 29, is one of hybrid IT solutions provider Ensono's "millennial mainframers," a role he began in February 2016. Boyd encountered mainframe programming through an Assembler class at Northern Illinois University, part of the required coursework for a computer science degree.
Mainframes still have a role to play in industry, and there are roles it does exceptionally well, according to Boyd:
- Mainframes are renowned for the ability to handle multiple user transactions simultaneously, in bulk
- Excel at number crunching
- Are capable of big data and analytics
- They offer max performance without degradation
- No mainframe with RACF has ever been hacked (any breaches were the result of human error)
"People have been saying mainframes are done," said Boyd. At the end of the day, companies "try to get the best machine for the task at hand."
Reliable though there are, there is an inherent industry anxiety about the continued reliance of mainframes. Considered legacy assets, infrastructure investment often goes into maintenance rather than innovation.
A 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office called for the modernization of federal government technology, where 75% of IT budgets were allocated for operations and maintenance.
Agencies reported systems more than 50 years old, and the report was quick to call out the reliance on mainframe technology.
Looming for many companies is the skills knowledge gap. Workers experienced in mainframes are retiring, taking the knowledge of underlying systems with them.
There is a solution.
"The transition between generations shouldn't be so daunting," said Boyd. Programmers new in their careers have the ability. What they need is the opportunity to shadow an experienced programmer and learn the environment.
For Vecchio, companies delaying migrations away from mainframes are "postponing the inevitable."
But the mainframe isn't going anywhere, according to Boyd.
It's just a question about how companies will rely on the technology going forward
Follow Naomi Eide on Twitter