It has been said that history repeats itself. George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If you live long enough and pay any attention to your surroundings, you notice that over time patterns emerge. Things start to look familiar. What’s passé can suddenly be en vogue again. We see it in the cyclical nature of the financial markets and on the world’s political stage. Even some of today’s fashions echo what was worn in the 1980s.
This also applies to IT, especially the mainframe environment. Technology pioneered to power the mainframe has been adopted by distributed open systems and even cloud platforms. Business logic originally implemented to process batch data has been expanded over time to handle online transactions and mobile requests. Essentially, what is old is new again.
Readers of Enterprise Executive will know that computing, as it’s broadly understood today, essentially began when the IBM System/360 series broke onto the scene in the mid-1960s. And for the next three decades, the mainframe was king. It was instrumental in space missions, including our first manned mission to the moon. Its powerful processing capabilities are the foundation for today’s ecommerce, enabling financial institutions, retailers and delivery providers to handle trillions of transactions per month.
The 1980s saw the introduction of PCs into the workplace. Juxtaposed to the mainframe, PCs were small and inexpensive. Predictably, executives who never understood the mainframe began to see it as an archaic system. Meanwhile, the mainframe hummed dutifully in the data center, garnering less and less attention in corporate strategies, and more critical scrutiny about its costs and contributions to the business. By the late 1990s, detractors boldly (and baselessly) began to predict its demise. These predictions became louder and more far-flung in the 2000s when the web became the public focus, and mainframes went to the back of the line. It was clear the future of IT had become intertwined with the web and organizations began to seriously look at distributed servers as alternatives to the mainframe.
The new millennium arrived and things began slowly looking up for the mainframe. Pundits quieted down when mainframes weren’t decommissioned as predicted. The turning point in the history of the mainframe really happened around 2007 when the Internet became the mobile Internet. In this new era, interconnectivity across computing environments was raised to a new level. The definition of an “application” changed to become a composite of programs, components and services spanning multiple platforms, with the UI being the mobile app. Mobile had also changed the application user from an internal user—e.g., a bank teller—to an external user, otherwise known as the consumer. Mainframe programs were now being accessed as services in this new application model.
True enough, some small and mid-sized businesses have found it more economical to migrate off the mainframe. But due to its “ability” (reliability, availability, scalability, flexibility) banks, healthcare providers, government agencies, telecom companies, manufacturers and retailers all continue to rely on the mainframe to support their most important operations. And that’s not going to change anytime soon. According to a recent study by Vanson Bourne commissioned by Compuware, 81 percent of CIOs expect the mainframe to remain a key business asset for the next decade.
Just as history looks remarkably the same at times, the mainframe is mainstream again, though not in the same way it was from the 1960s through the 1990s. An integral part of the application delivery chain, the mainframe enables companies to effectively compete in a continually evolving business landscape.
The mainframe has evolved to embrace its role in the new millennium. A paradigm shift is occurring within the mainframe environment, precipitated by the convergence of four dimensions that make up the “New Normal of Mainframe.”
• Customer-Facing Applications. The application’s end user is external to the enterprise, often a consumer. This new user introduces new expectations for an application’s behavior, performance and accessibility.
• Increasing Application Complexity. Mainframe programs are no longer standalone programs; they are interconnected to other software to provide back-end services. Consequently, the overall “application” architecture is becoming more complex as it spans multiple platforms, technologies and disciplines.
• Increasing Transaction Workload. The mainframe is the back-end system of record serving up billions of customer-facing transactions per day. Transaction volume continues to increase as the application is enhanced to keep up with (external) user demand.
• Transitioning Workforce. Simultaneously, the workforce with the most knowledge to help organizations unearth the business logic locked in mainframe is retiring.
The Great and Powerful End User