Mainframe Use Is Growing, But Challenges Remain Unsolved
After years of hearing that the mainframe is dead, a number of recent surveys have indicated that not only is the mainframe not dead, dependence on the mainframe is actually increasing. This sentiment is echoed in an excellent article I recently read by Christopher O'Malley, CEO of Compuware. You can read the original Forbes article here.
Conniving naysayers have propagated the myth of the mainframe’s demise for decades, but a swift and momentous evolution of mainframe innovation and usage in recent years has debunked this propaganda for large mainframe-powered organizations around the world. By 2019, 64% of them (up from 57% this year) will be running more than half their business-critical workloads on the mainframe, supporting analytics, blockchain and web and mobile activity, according to a Forrester Consulting study we at Compuware Corporation commissioned.
Decisions to increasingly leverage the mainframe aren’t arbitrary. Mainframe data is embedded in everyone’s day-to-day digital experiences. Mainframe reliability, availability and system security are unmatched by any other platform. And trying to migrate mission-critical workloads off the mainframe has proved to be a boon for vendors but a laborious, over-budget, futile endeavor for customers left holding the bill on a failed outcome.
We’ve found embracing a hybrid approach is more strategic, keeping competitively differentiating mission-critical workloads on the mainframe and using XaaS resources from cloud providers for more basic business applications and a platform for distributed infrastructure.
Still, as more organizations leverage the mainframe for competitive differentiation, they will need to overcome these obstacles:
1. Brain Drain
Over the past five years, mainframe-powered organizations have lost 23% of their mainframe workforce and only replaced one of every three experts lost, according to Forrester’s study.
The new development and operations people hired don’t have the mainframe experts’ knowledge of the platform’s esoteric differences. They don’t take well to its waterfall-based culture and processes. They desperately need familiar tools that enable them to ramp up on the mainframe, quickly.
2. Increasing Performance Expectations
Mainframe applications and data are the bedrock of customer experience, supporting 72% of customer-facing applications, according to Forrester’s study.
If underserved, mainframe application performance issues can undermine fast, reliable end-user customer-facing technologies. Yet many mainframe teams rely too heavily on manual workload-management processes without automation and visibility to increase the quality, velocity and efficiency of their tasks.
Enabling mainframe code to run as efficiently as possible is also critical to controlling IBM monthly license charges (MLCs), how IBM charges for license and support costs. Most IBM mainframe customers are billed on the rolling four-hour average (R4HA) of the peak million service units (MSU) value of processing work for the month. A higher peak means a larger bill from IBM, so performance optimization is key to reducing costs.
3. Innovation Gap
The mainframe’s isolated culture curtails cross-team and cross-platform collaboration, ideation and innovation. This excludes one of the most critical application layers (the transaction itself, handled by the mainframe) from end-to-end DevOps efforts.
The slow, protracted processes mainframe teams have long relied upon guarantee mainframe code is released too slowly to support fast-moving technologies of engagement. Development teams can only move as fast as their slowest link.
Antiquated, esoteric, text-based mainframe tools limit visibility, automation, and integrations with modern tools organizations need to drive innovation from applications spanning mainframe and engagement technologies.
A Path Forward
There are several ways mainframe-industry leaders are improving the ability of mainframe organizations to overcome brain-drain, a lack of innovation and workload cost optimization. That’s occurring through new education initiatives, cost management, and a focus on modernizing culture, processes and tools.
Educating The Next Generation
To attract and retain new talent as well as help them take ownership of the mainframe as experts retire, leading organizations are fostering cultures of continuous learning that encourage mentorship, support internal academic initiatives and guide hands-on experience with major development projects (as opposed to relegating new hires to maintenance tasks). International programs like IBM’s Master the Mainframe Contest are giving students the opportunity to experience working on the mainframe.
These initiatives are key to helping next-gen developers understand how important the mainframe is to large organizations and their customers in a digital economy, as well as helping them rapidly overcome the mainframe learning curve and increase productivity.
Workload And Cost Optimization
Key to improving mainframe application performance as workloads increase involves finding a way to prioritize and distribute workloads optimally as well as making it easier to pinpoint application inefficiencies that delay transaction response times and cause overruns of service level agreements. There are solutions available that help balance workloads, improve throughput and identify R4HA tuning opportunities. These can help organizations continuously improve mainframe application performance and reduce MLC costs.
IBM is innovating the mainframe to curb workload issues on its IBM Z platform and z/OS operating system, which can now run several workloads concurrently.
Modern Culture, Processes And Tools
Ultimately, part of what will solve nearly every challenge on the mainframe—from onboarding new developers to managing costs to bridging the mainframe innovation gap—is empowering staff entrusted as the new stewards of mainframe code and data. Newer generations of developers must be positioned to flourish under a unified DevOps culture with processes designed for agility and modern tools that help them continuously improve development quality, velocity and efficiency.
This entails removing mainframe teams from their silos to collaborate with non-mainframe teams, maintaining shorter delivery cycles, and integrating mainframe code into the same pipeline distributed teams use to build, test and deploy deliverables. To do that, organizations must provide mainframe teams with modern tools that leverage a familiar interface, provide graphical visibility of complex programs, are equipped with automation to ease repetitive manual tasks and integrate with other leading tools across platforms.
Here To Stay
Supporting the accelerating development and delivery of digital innovation with the mainframe will require managing increasing workloads as economically as possible while increasing a next-gen understanding of, and interest in, the platform. Both will require fostering a new mainframe culture by leveraging proven processes and best-of-breed tools.
Overcoming obstacles that still lie between the mainframe’s current state and desired end state will be what breathes new life into the platform—and quashes any remaining notions of its approaching demise.