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From Legacy to Legendary: Making Your Mainframe Work For You

A good portion of the bad reputation of the mainframe computer is simply due to three common misperceptions: perceived high cost, perceived IT skills crisis and perceived irrelevance to modern computing, writes Andrew Wickett of Microform.

Industry Perspectives

October 29, 2013

5 Min Read
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Andrew Wickett is director of migrations and modernizations at Micro Focus.



Micro Focus

What do you think of when you hear the word “mainframe”? For many of us, images of clunky, outdated, overpriced and expensive legacy systems come to mind. Despite the crucial role they play in powering the core of so many independent companies and government systems, mainframes still carry negative connotations and bad reputations. A good portion of this is simply due to three common misperceptions: perceived high cost, perceived IT skills crisis and perceived irrelevance to modern computing.

In this article, we’ll delve into these misperceptions surrounding mainframe use and explore how organizations can maximize their current systems to fuel future business practices by understanding the changing workloads and ensuring mainframe environments are up-to-date.

Perceived High Cost

For many large-scale organizations, the mainframe is considered powerful, secure and unrivalled in reliability. They find these systems to be cost effective and high performing. However, when an application’s processing consumption is rising or its response times are not meeting users’ real-time expectations, often the cost benefit justification is put in jeopardy, either because MIPS/MSU costs continue to rise and in turn force hardware upgrades, or simply because the systems are becoming too complex and expensive to maintain. Organizations need to look for ways to modernize and/or mobilize components of their workloads. Luckily, with a little attention and improved understanding, companies can easily ensure that their mainframes remain legendary systems, instead of legacy systems.

By making sure the mainframe environments are kept up to date and understanding the workloads with which the mainframe must contend, companies can overcome the surprises of degraded service, rising costs or unplanned hardware upgrades.

It’s important to “right size” your environment and look for opportunities to optimize their workload (e.g. offload development and testing).

IT Skills Crisis

Aside from erroneous ideas over cost, there is also not enough academia supporting the survival and development of the mainframe. The lack of IT skills in mainframe languages remains a significant issue in major enterprises and is one of the primary drivers, in addition to cost, for the growth of the outsourcing market in the last decade. Organizations are seriously considering the “rip and replace” method as a means to trade in their old systems for off-the-shelf solutions because of the apparent lack of skilled mainframe developers. In most cases, this is not only unnecessary, but exceedingly expensive and very risky.

Yet, there is a massive disparity between what is being taught and the skills needed in business. Recent research has shown that mainframe programming languages, like COBOL, are being taught at the University-level, but we still have a long way to go. Data from over 100 schools shows that 1 out of 4 universities have COBOL as part of its curriculum. However, 71 percent of companies report that they will rely heavily on applications built using COBOL language for the next decade and beyond.

How can we bridge the divide? Proponents of the mainframe development paradigm have forged relationships with training organizations, academic institutions and others to help build the next generation mainframe programming staff. Commerce, academia and even IT students themselves must come together with vendor support. There are examples of this happening already – with some companies retraining programming staff in key mainframe skills. That research shows that modern tooling enabled developers to pick up traditional mainframe languages like COBOL in a matter of hours, effectively eradicating their perceived skills crisis in a single stroke. The key is providing a modern development environment like Visual Studio and/or Eclipse that support traditional mainframe languages and environments – like COBOL, JCL, VSAM, CICS, IMS, etc.

Irrelevance to Modern Computing

Generally speaking, mainframes go quietly about their business, processing many of the worlds’ most critical business applications without much fuss. As a result. there is little mindshare devoted to them and very little new competitive edge or corporate emphasis placed on them. It’s only when an outage occurs that anyone broaches the topic of how their mainframe is (or isn’t) working for them. The untold story of the enduring value of the mainframe is a vacuum into which negative perceptions can get sucked in.

The fact of the matter is mainframes are not only relevant, but imperative for thousands of global organizations. We need more investments and innovation to retain and improve how mainframe systems operate with modern computing platforms like Windows, Linux, and AIX.

The mainframe can and should be seen as relevant for many of today’s organizations. These are the systems that run the business - and, as such, need the management, investment and innovation to support the future. Many of these applications have Organization IP embedded into them and differentiate a company’s products and services – something that packages can’t offer. Organizations need to take this IP and modernize its usage and delivery by, for example, introducing self-serve websites, new interfaces and Mobile variations, which can all be done without modifying the code or duplicating efforts. Organizations need to leverage these assets and not try to recreate/re-invent them – it’s not needed. Instead of labeling mainframes “legacy systems,” it’s actually more appropriate to call them “foundation systems.”

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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