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Over 50 years after their introduction, as much as 80 percent of the world’s corporate data still resides on mainframes. They are used by 71 percent of the Fortune 100, and not just for residual workloads that IT departments haven’t yet offloaded into some newer storage and processing system. Mainframes are still incredibly relevant in a rapidly evolving IT landscape – they remain the best option for secure, large-volume transactions, the foundation of many modern technologies. The dwindling number of “IT experts” who say the mainframe is nearing its end are ignoring how it has helped IT organizations and, more importantly, how it continues to support modern-day tech like mobile, cloud and still-emerging technologies like real-time analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT).

What’s Old is New

While IBM continues to innovate to enable the modern mainframe to play an important role in evolving IT infrastructures, it’s continued use to do the heavy lifting with high volume transaction workloads can be attributed to its architectural roots. When the mainframe was introduced 51 years ago, it was designed to support a heavy workload of data-intensive back-end processes. Today, mainframes process about 30 billion business transactions per day. Mainframes excel in transactions requiring bulk processing capacity at high speeds (analytics) and the ability to connect large, dispersed networks with diverse components including distributed systems, cloud, Hadoop and IoT. The need for this kind of powerful engine at the hub of these networks is only growing, and a tool with comparable power has yet to be introduced.

Big Iron Handshake

Although the consumer doesn’t realize it, mainframes are supporting many of the niceties and conveniences they rely on – they interact and experience the power of mainframes in everything from withdrawing money from ATM machines, to checking into flights at airline kiosks. Financial institutions, airlines, health care companies and insurance companies, to name a few, are expected to continue innovating the customer experience, while providing security and privacy that regulations and consumers demand, and mainframes are an important part of their strategy.

For banks, ATMs were revolutionary for customers who wanted access to their accounts beyond branch banking hours. Without the mainframe, which has the ability to process and power $23 billion of ATM transactions per year, the banking business would not be able to securely and effectively perform such large-scale transaction processing. The mainframe has also taken mobile banking to the next level – with the mobile device acting as the terminal from which data integration systems extract and move data, relaying it back and forth between necessary resources.

The mainframe can support thousands of users and application programs that concurrently access a multitude of resources. The ability to consistently and continually power and crunch data is one of the many reasons why the mainframe is still important for public and private enterprises. This is especially true as businesses look for ways to find their next “ATM-like” game-changer.  

To IoT and Beyond

Much of this innovation is happening in the IoT space, where web-enabled devices, machines and other objects communicate real-time information to network servers over the Internet. With more and more devices connecting and communicating, the explosion of data will need to be managed, processed, transformed and archived. Strategy Analytics already estimates that there will be 33 billion connected devices, in the next six years. That’s four connected devices for every person on the planet! Much like the massive networks of ATMs that connect back to the mainframe, connected devices will be most effective using the mainframe as a central platform. Also, as new, advanced analytics platforms like Splunk emerge with new capabilities such as elastic search, data visualization and real-time insights, the transaction data on mainframes will be one of the stars of the show and highly sought after by these new systems, revolutionizing the meaning of Big Iron to Big Data. In fact, this is already happening, with new tech making mainframe data available to Splunk, as well as other leading business intelligence visualization tools on Hadoop such as Qlik and Tableau.

What Lies Ahead?

It’s clear that despite decades of predictions from naysayers around the mainframe’s demise, it is neither dying nor is it nearing the end, it’s evolving. Although the mainframe isn’t as buzzworthy a term as the newer technologies available, it’s important to remember that mainframe resources are always being shared within an organization, with people accessing and managing it both inside and outside the company walls. Ultimately, without the mainframe there isn’t much else available that could support the level of information and security needed to run public and private businesses all over the world.  The biggest mainframe challenges revolve around the continued availability of modern mainframers to support Big Iron’s evolving role in the enterprise. 

The good news, according to Compuware, is that in a recent survey of 350 enterprise CIOs, 88 percent rated the mainframe as a “key business asset” for at least the next 10 years.  The bad news is that, despite that acknowledgement, the survey also confirmed that CIOs are strongly concerned about a mainframe developer skills gap and are struggling with strategies to fill it.  Compuware CEO Chris O’Malley called this a problem that requires as much attention as potential Y2K issues did.  The better news is that with the mainframe as a key asset in processing and gleaning business value from the flood of data from diverse sources, a solution is just one innovation away.