IT Management

Driven in large part by the advent of mobile, device-based, self-service applications, the mainframe has become a more critical component of the modern-day application delivery chain. Today’s mainframes reliably support innovative, high-volume, revenue-generating transactions and services such as online banking and e-commerce. It’s estimated that the average adult instigates 30 mainframe transactions per day, making mainframe data and applications fuel to the business. Today, the once siloed mainframe is increasingly melting into the computer topology of the enterprise. 

Nowhere is this more evident than with mobile applications—both Web-based and native. Mobile applications may seem to be today’s hotbed of innovation, but the fact is many of these applications extend all the way back to incorporate mainframe-based processing and data.

Consider, for example, new apps from mortgage lenders that enable consumers to simply snap photos to submit extensive paperwork, making the mortgage application process significantly faster and easier. The front-end of this app might well serve as the document and picture store utilizing a distributed database. But unbeknownst to most people, the back-end of the app must also access mainframe data such as bank account information to complete tasks such as credit verification. Apps like these are popping up everywhere, meaning the mainframe is getting “touched” more and more.

Or, consider a new app that allows bank customers to use a smartphone or tablet to simply snap a picture of the front and back of an endorsed check to make a deposit. Once the picture is taken, customers are asked to check the information on a verification screen and hit “submit” to begin processing the check. Here again, mainframe data and processes are accessed to both verify account information and initiate the deposit process millions of times a day. For example, Bank of America now has 10 million mobile banking customers and 97 percent of all banks have mobile offerings, including mobile apps. For banking customers, mobile is clearly becoming a preferred way to access personal financial information and execute transactions.

Mobile applications are equally huge in retail, with mobile emerging as the fastest-growing segment of the online commerce world. According to PayPal, global mobile payment volume over the 2012 Thanksgiving period more than doubled from the previous year. In addition, according to mobile analytics start-up Flurry, consumers spent six times as much time using retailer apps in December 2012 compared to a year earlier, showing that shopping and commerce are finally beginning to take off on mobile platforms. With just about every mobile purchase of a new pair of shoes or camera, mainframes are accessed to verify payment, conduct inventory administration and/or initiate the shipping process.

Agile Development Approaches Emphasize Useful, High-Quality Software and Applications

As applications touching the mainframe become both more mobile and modern, a concurrent trend is happening: Software and application release cycles are growing faster and faster. Getting to market ahead of the competition with cutting-edge services is top of mind for many organizations. In this environment, many businesses are adopting agile development methods, geared toward enabling greater business and customer satisfaction through the rapid delivery of useful, high-quality software. More specifically, the agile approach encourages fast, flexible response to change and continuous development and testing.

Consider this scenario: An online retailer offers an incentive whereby preferred customers (those holding store-branded credit cards) get $10 off a purchase of $100 or more. In an effort to clear inventory the week after Christmas, this e-tailer wants to offer a special sale, modifying the offer to $20 off a purchase of $100 or more. The e-tailer needs to be aware when eligible, cardholding customers are in the check-out process in order to alert the customers of this special offer. This is an example of agile in action—modifying software quickly to meet the real-time, changing demands of a business and its customers. 

But applications also must be high-quality and high-performing, meaning fast and reliable. Where mobile apps are concerned, poor performance and quality can quickly lead to negative reviews on app stores, which have sealed the fates of many poorly performing applications. “Mobile apps live and die by their ratings in an app store … when the rating suffers, customer adoption suffers,” says Forrester’s Margo Visitacion. While testing is becoming more imperative, it’s also becoming increasingly difficult. In the aforementioned example, the IT team needs to test the modifications within a complex system of connected distributed and mainframe applications and with equally complex and connected test data.

Non-Mainframe Developers Must Have Quick, Ready Access to Mainframe Data

Given today’s new breed of mobile and distributed applications that increasingly touch the mainframe, it’s critical for broader IT teams, including non-mainframe application developers, to access mainframe data quickly and easily. This is the only way to know that an application is really working as it should, and is the key to building and testing applications accurately, within shortened timeframes. Time-intensive manual processes can put a drag on team productivity and disrupt agile development cycles, leading to costly delays to market for applications and potentially, lost competitive advantage. 

But this new reality raises several critical questions. First, how are organizations going to make mainframe data more accessible to those who need it? How are organizations going to equip their non-mainframe application developers to manage and manipulate multiple mainframe data stores, including DB2 and IMS databases? Will the inability to access accurate test data prevent teams from delivering promised application innovation?

The Value of a Modern User Interface and User-Friendly Data Editor

The mainframe is the last large-scale computing platform with its own unique, character-based development environment, which can be problematic since increasingly it will need to be accessed by non-mainframe developers. To this end, there can be tremendous value in offering a modernized development environment that’s more standardized, “Windows-like” and comfortable to non-mainframe developers. This environment should also include an intuitive data editor, helping mobile and distributed application developers who aren’t necessarily mainframe experts to manage and manipulate all different types of mainframe data. 

In a classic mainframe development environment, numerous steps are required to navigate through character-based menus and panels to bring up a specialized editor for the type of data that needs to be edited. This process is both primitive and overly complex to someone accustomed to navigating file structures in an Explorer-type graphical view. It will certainly alienate the very people you want to work with your mainframe. The best and brightest will do everything they can to distance themselves from this antiquated environment. Contrast that with an intuitive, standardized GUI that allows for quick and easy file navigation and simple steps to initiate data editing sessions, and mainframe development becomes familiar, comfortable and highly productive. 

This modernized development environment provides many other important benefits in terms of future-proofing your mainframe investments and continuing to cultivate top mainframe developer talent. As noted, cutting-edge applications that incorporate and rely on mainframe data are key drivers of industry leadership and revenue-generation. Organizations face intense pressure to deliver and maintain the highest application versatility, quality and performance. But they also face a rapidly retiring field of mainframe development expertise, which puts their business at risk.

To overcome this challenge, businesses using mainframes must continue to attract top developers and empower them to maximize productivity while maintaining efficiencies gained over the years. They can do this by giving mainframe developers, particularly the newer generation, the tools they need to do their jobs successfully, while ensuring a smooth knowledge transfer from more experienced generations and extending the value of existing mainframe investments. There can be tremendous value in creating a “bridge” between the newer and less experienced and more experienced “veteran” generations of mainframe developers. This bridge is, once again, a modernized, intuitive development environment that increases less experienced mainframe developers’ comfort level with the mainframe and makes them happier while shortening their mainframe learning curve.

Binding Teams Together Through Innovation and Maintaining the Relevancy of the Mainframe

A modernized development environment that includes an intuitive, easy-to-use data editor can play a major role in empowering non-mainframe developers as they bring innovative, high-performing applications to market. By giving non-mainframe developers quick access to mainframe test data, this modernized environment supports core principles of agile development, including bringing cross-functional teams—e.g., mainframe developers and distributed and mobile app developers—together in the spirit of application innovation.

When it comes to mainframe developers themselves, a modernized environment also goes a long way when trying to attract the best and brightest new-generation developers to mainframe careers. These individuals are often well-versed in agile principles and are primed for communicating and collaborating with cross-functional teams in pursuit of software development and business excellence. Ultimately, adopting a new, modernized development environment that includes an intuitive data editor will open up mainframe data resources in a safe, secure and fast way. This paves the way for useful, high-quality software and applications being brought to market faster, by a more empowered, productive and cohesive development team on an enterprisewide scale.