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The Mainframe Lives On:  What Does This Mean for IT Ops Teams?

Optimal workload management on the mainframe can be jeopardized as responsibilities are transferred to a new generation of IT staff with far less platform experience.

6 Min Read
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Chris O’Malley is CEO of Compuware.

If you think “cloud first” has completely taken over the world, think again.  Forrester Research just conducted a survey that found that mainframe workloads are increasing. Fifty-seven percent of mainframe users currently run more than half of their business-critical applications on the platform, with this number expected to increase to 64 percent by next year.

We can’t say we’re surprised. Mainframes have consistently proven to be the most reliable, secure, scalable and best-performing platform on earth, making them ideal for handling the high processing volumes driven by mobile and web transactions, and increasingly by blockchain and data analytics.

But a potentially troublesome juxtaposition also emerged from this survey: Even with workloads growing, these enterprises have only replaced 37 percent of the mainframe workforce lost over the past five years.

There is much discussion about how modernization efforts can address this problem by empowering next-gen mainframe developers with tools and processes that enable them to produce quality code with high levels of velocity and efficiency. Modern interfaces, visualization tools and deeper mainframe code integration for continuous integration and delivery are readily available, for example. But what does the mainframe’s longevity and reduced workforce mean for IT ops teams specifically? If not managed and leveraged properly, costs can rise unnecessarily. And even though the mainframe platform itself is highly secure, some susceptibility remains.  Here are some areas of focus.

IT ops teams must proactively manage costs. Cost optimization continues to be a key consideration, especially as the mainframe takes on bigger workloads. Many organizations are confused by IBM’s mainframe licensing costs (MLCs). As a result, they lack the ability to effectively manage them and watch their costs increase unnecessarily. MLCs can represent more than 30 percent of a typical mainframe total cost of ownership, so anything IT teams can do to reduce these costs, while still meeting business demands, can make a huge difference.

Monthly License Charges (MLCs) are determined by using a metric known as the peak rolling four-hour average (R4HA) as the basis to calculate MSU (million services units) across all logical partitions (LPARs). In simple terms, MSU represents an amount of work processed. These can be kept at a minimum by diligently tuning each application to minimize its individual consumption of mainframe resources, while the R4HA can be kept in check by spreading out the timing of application workloads based on priority in order to minimize collective utilization peaks.  

Optimal workload management on the mainframe can be jeopardized as responsibilities are transferred to a new generation of IT staff with far less platform experience, and as mainframe environments become increasingly complex. The same visualization techniques that enable developers to manipulate mainframe code more easily and confidently can now help IT ops teams. Specifically, IT ops teams can derive intuitive, actionable insights into how workloads are being initiated and executed, as well as their impact on cost.

IT ops teams must address security comprehensively. The mainframe is the most inherently secure computing platform on the planet, due in large part to its hyper-converged architecture. All the hardware and software that’s needed to complete mainframe transactions resides on a single machine, unlike a distributed environment where there is much network traffic that can be intercepted by an attacker. Additionally, mainframes’ front-end processors often handle the task of interfacing with the rest of the world, freeing up the system to do nothing but what it was expressly designed for - executing transactions. These front-end processors also handle the security aspects, effectively isolating the mainframe from the rest of the world.

Recent advances are fortifying security on the mainframe even further, which is critical as mainframe users continue to house up to 70 to 80 percent of their corporate data on these platforms. IBM’s pervasive encryption technology – introduced in conjunction with the IBM z14 mainframe last year – supports data encryption both in-flight and at-rest, with minimal processing burden. The new IBM z14 ZR1 announced just last week can handle more than 850 million fully encrypted transactions per day on a single system. However, the mainframe’s hyper-converged architecture and advances like pervasive encryption do not address what is emerging as a huge data security threat for many organizations – the insider threat, or actions taken by an employee or a person with legitimate or stolen access inside the network.

Insider threats are often associated with malicious users, but in reality, employees often innocently and inadvertently cause data breaches and leaks. The Ponemon Institute recently found that 80 percent of cyber threats are attributable to internal business users, and 58 percent of IT operations and security managers believe their organizations are unnecessarily granting access to individuals beyond their roles and responsibilities.

Mainframe users must not only continue monitoring privileged user behavior on the mainframe, but also evolve their approaches, moving beyond simply reviewing insufficient log files and SMF data to capturing and analyzing complete start-to-finish user behavior. This intelligence is vital for insulating and protecting both organizations and employees from unknowingly risky behaviors as well as meeting compliance regulations.

Combine Mainframe and Cloud

Virtually all surveys indicate cloud computing usage will soar over the next few years. Forrester predicts that in 2018, more than 50 percent of global enterprises will depend on at least one public cloud platform to support their digital transformation. Considering these predictions – alongside Forrester’s survey, which found mainframe workloads are growing – it seems mainframe users are finally hearing a message we’ve been advocating for some time, which is the merits of Two-platform IT.  

A two-platform approach to IT entails a careful analysis of applications and leveraging both the off-premise cloud as well as the on-premise mainframe, in order to deliver an ideal level of support across a full application portfolio.  An organization may deem the cloud a better alternative for an important (though non-competitively differentiating) HR application for example, while the on-premise mainframe is better suited for mission-critical transaction processing, particularly customer-facing transactional applications. The Forrester survey also found that 72 percent of customer-facing applications are completely or very dependent on mainframe processing, and unplanned downtime or data breaches for these applications can be devastating to a business. This means some applications may be ideal for componentization across the two platforms.

The cloud and the mainframe offer ample opportunities to combine the best of both worlds, and mainframe users should consistently assess their application landscapes to determine how they can take best advantage of these proven and complementary platforms.


The mainframe just keeps getting better in answering the call of duty in the digital age. IT ops teams – like their counterparts on the development side – will continue to leverage the platform’s strengths while adopting new techniques that allow them to maximize value, reduce risks and leverage the mainframe in concert with modern infrastructures like the cloud. The methods and approaches described here will position those teams well as mainframe dependence grows, and specialized skillsets become harder to find.

Opinions expressed in the article above do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Data Center Knowledge and Informa.

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