Dec 10 ’14

Mobile and the Mainframe: Look Ahead to Stay Relevant

by Dennis O’Flynn in Enterprise Executive

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

To say smart phones, which now account for 50 percent of all mobile phone purchases, have radically changed the way consumers interact with the world, would be an understatement. The average mobile phone user accesses his/ her device 30 times per hour to check news, post updates and photos, text, email, tweet, talk (yes, talk), watch videos, bank and shop online all while keeping abreast of what’s happening at work and home.

Just as our devices are available to us 24/7, 365 days of year, we require similar availability of the systems we access, and that includes the mainframe. If those systems aren’t available at the time and pace we want them, the consequences for business can be dire. Take, for example, a millennial bank customer who checks his balance from his mobile phone at 2:30 a.m. only to find his balance is significantly lower than what he thinks it should be. Naturally, he vents his concerns and frustrations on social media. As it turns out, other bank customers are experiencing the same problem, and by 5 a.m. the issue has evolved into a colossal PR problem. The bank must go into crisis communications mode before anyone has had their first cup of coffee.

A similar experience happened at a major bank, and to their credit, they were able to acknowledge the problem and correct it relatively quickly. Nonetheless, these scenarios illustrate that while mobile has opened up innumerable opportunities for companies to engage with and market to their customers, it has also raised tech performance expectations to an exceedingly high level.

Transaction Volumes Are of the Mind Boggling Variety

According to an article written by Peter Siddell at the IBM Hursley laboratory in the United Kingdom, titled “5 Things to Know About Why System z is Ideal for Mobile Apps,” there are some amazing mainframe transaction facts. For example, every second of the day across the world, 7,000 tweets are sent, 60,000 Google searches are conducted and 30,000 Facebook likes are made. But these numbers are paltry in comparison to the 1.15 million CICS transactions executed each second on System z—roughly 10 billion CICS transactions per day.

What do these metrics teach us? The number of customer-facing application users are generating an increasing number of mainframe transactions. Where there used to be a relatively small number of “internal users,” today there are millions of individuals interfacing with mainframes as they shop online, perform financial transactions or check the delivery status of a parcel. And while there are more people accessing the mainframe than ever before, it’s the portability of our connected devices that’s largely behind the increase in mainframe transactions. Imagine you’re traveling through Michigan and you decide to order something from an online retailer. Your retail order will kick off numerous mainframe transactions, beginning with your cell phone accessing a cell tower. As you search product inventory, make a purchase by entering your credit card information, receive authorization from your credit card company or bank and specify shipment instructions through a delivery service, you will hit numerous mainframes across several vendor IT environments. It is not just e-commerce that can generate multiple mainframe transactions. A simple task from a web browser, such as logging in to see your bank account balance, can kick off as many mainframe transactions.

With all of these transactions occurring on any given day—and more during peak holiday shopping times—it goes without saying that high customer expectations are putting increasing pressure on the mainframe to perform. A performance bottleneck in any of the previous scenarios sends costs skyrocketing as systems slow and teams work through problems. Revenue opportunities are put in jeopardy when consumers have poor application experiences and vent their frustration on social media. What’s more, the potential for transaction bottlenecks anywhere along the application delivery chain is further increased by a complex application architecture that transactions must traverse to even get to the mainframe.

Application Architecture Is Reaching New Levels of Complexity

With the mainframe as the cornerstone of the modern-day application delivery chain, enterprise application complexity continues to rise as application components span multiple platforms and operating environments. One illustration of how this complexity must be navigated is when an application must be tuned or modified. The changes have to be tested across a vast system of connected distributed and mainframe tiers. Yet, few IT professionals have a deep enough knowledge of all the components and how they interconnect to understand how a “simple” change to a multi-tier application can impact what’s going on downstream. Typically, staff has mainframe or distributed technology skills—but only a select few have deep understanding of the “end-to-end” path a transaction takes from a mobile device to the mainframe. These technology silos mean that when an upgrade or change is required, there must be collaboration and coordination among the teams to effectively roll out the changes. Importantly, those changes often have to be implemented across time zones and continents, further complicating the process.

Enterprise application complexity also rears its ugly head when application performance problems and exceptions occur anywhere along the transaction path. Without proper tooling that can span multiple domains—and is accessible to multiple teams across the enterprise—performance problems can be very difficult to diagnose and quickly resolve. Distributed and mainframe teams can spend hours, days or even months in the war room, pointing fingers and asking repeatedly, “what exactly is happening?” and “whose fault is it?”

By the same token, it’s not enough to merely have application performance monitoring (APM) tools that find and characterize problems. That’s just the first step. Integrations among APM and developer productivity tools are necessary to help bridge the skills and knowledge gap between development, test and operations teams so problems can be solved quickly and accurately.

This growing complexity, which shows no signs of tapering off, has big implications for the fourth dimension of the New Normal: a transitioning mainframe workforce.

The Retiring Workforce Offers a Silver Lining

Most large enterprise IT organizations have software developers skilled in various disciplines (e.g., mainframe, distributed, middleware, web, mobile, etc.) who know very little to nothing about the each others’ roles. More concerning, they don’t understand how their work impacts the individual components of the application delivery chain. This is the case even when the organization as a whole is focused on developing high-performing, customer-facing applications that involve mainframe and distributed systems. Because of the way many organizations are structured, even individual roles are siloed, where staff are firmly focused on their responsibility areas and do not have a strong grasp of what others on their team do.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of experienced baby boomer IT professionals are expected to retire in the next 10 years. Within the mainframe sphere, IBM is projecting a (worst-case) 84,000-person shortfall. Mainframe skills shortage isn’t news. Warning bells about their impending departure—and the fact that relatively few professionals are qualified to fill their ranks— have been sounding for years. However, this exodus provides enterprises with an opportunity to begin to re-shape their cultures. IT organizations that begin to break the pattern of role-specialization and become more cross-functional and business-centric will be better positioned to continue leveraging the mainframe as a revenue generator and drive growth.

One way to do this is to grow and foster enterprise developers from within. Hybrid software developers understand how disparate platforms seamlessly work together as one cohesive system. These individuals can see the challenges (and opportunities) of both mainframe and distributed systems and can navigate emerging architectures, as well as new and traditional application platforms.

In all likelihood, it’s going to take considerable time for most organizations to build a strong pool of resources that have deep, end-to-end knowledge. That’s where tooling helps.

Modernized, Integrated Tools Are a Must in the New Normal

There is certain tooling that IT professionals need in order to navigate the New Normal of Mainframe. At minimum, this should include a modernized point-and-click mainframe integrated development environment with access to a large portfolio of first-in-class mainframe developer productivity tools. In addition, teams need a modern, cross-platform APM solution that reduces the finger-pointing between mainframe and distributed teams when cross-platform problems crop up and reduces mean-time-to-resolution.

In addition, there should be integrations among these products, enabling the simplification and automation of key processes that normally require a degree of proficiency. Modernized and integrated solutions bridge knowledge gaps and elevate staff to higher levels of productivity.

The key is to increase mainframe agility—and by embracing key concepts of DevOps, mainframe organizations can become more agile.


A Harris Interactive poll asked, “If you could live forever in good health at a particular age, what age would you like to be?” The answer was 50. And the mainframe recently turned 50, too. It is not surprising that the mainframe has grown stronger with every decade and embraced each new challenge the IT industry has introduced. It is well positioned to continue providing enterprises exceptional transaction processing capabilities into its sixth decade.

The mainframe environment is neither dead nor dying. It is alive and well as the system of record providing transaction processing for the next generation of mobile-enabled users. The mainframe continues to prove its relevance as a mainstream platform for the past, present and future. This is a history worth repeating!