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4 Reasons You Should Consider Modernizing Mainframe Apps in 2013

IT organizations are facing significant challenges maintaining legacy mainframe applications: challenges ranging from the high cost of proprietary hardware and software, to the attrition of people with qualified mainframe skills and experience, and the inability to support modern computing demands of mobile and big fast data.

Cloud computing offers an opportunity to rationalize and modernize application portfolios, which can include migrating legacy mainframe apps to the cloud. Unfortunately, many IT organizations see the prospect of modernizing mainframe apps as a “mission impossible”; the path forward too cloudy and the costs and risks are too great.

As a result, many resign themselves to living with the burdens of a legacy mainframe environment.   And while remaining status quo may appear to be the best option, over time, it only intensifies the challenges associated with maintaining mainframe apps.   Eventually the business loses confidence in IT’s ability to deliver, and costs continue to rise without corresponding value.

In this four-part blog series, I will attempt to show light on this cloudy path and explain why in 2013, modernizing mainframes should be considered “mission possible”. I’ll start by answering the following questions:

  1. Why should IT organizations consider modernizing mainframe apps to the cloud?
  2. What are the obstacles to modernizing mainframe apps?
  3. How can app modernization costs and risks be mitigated?
  4. Which app designs and architectures should be considered when modernizing apps to the cloud.

Why Modernize Legacy Mainframe Applications to the Cloud?

There are several business reasons for modernizing mainframe apps to the cloud.  An organization’s specific reason(s) can help define the business case for modernization, as well as the strategy and approach for modernizing mainframe apps to the cloud.  Some of the reasons include the following:

Lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Studies abound from all sides debating, with near political and religious overtones, as to which technology has the lowest TCO.  However, one case study, performed by an independent analyst, suggests the TCO for running applications on commodity servers can be more than 60% less than the mainframe.  Since cloud further commoditizes infrastructure, modernizing mainframe apps to the cloud should decrease the TCO even more.

Recently, I’ve had clients express frustration and concern with expensive mainframe licensing and leasing costs.  The high costs are, in part, attributed to the concentrated oligopoly of vendors that control and support the mainframe. True, mainframes are also very expensive because they provide extremely high reliability, availability, and serviceability  (RAS).  However, businesses have realized equal (or good enough) RAS running applications within the cloud, and at a fraction of the cost of a mainframe.

Desire for Greater Agility

Agility, with regards to applications, defines the rate at which an app can be successfully modified to meet the ever-changing needs of the business.

Most mainframe apps were developed in a monolithic, stove-piped fashion, which has left them “brittle” to change.

For instance, one client explained the difficulty of maintaining a 22,000-line COBOL program.   The client made several attempts to modularize the program but had little success because of the tight coupling between other programs that makeup the entire mainframe application.  Compare and contrast those challenges with modern cloud-friendly programming languages and frameworks, which support and encourage highly decoupled, service-oriented architectures.

Declining Mainframe Skill Sets and Experience

Based upon varying public research, this concern is debatable. However, a recent study done by Computerworld indicated two disturbing trends: 46% of the 357 respondents noticed a shortage of COBOL programmers, and a majority of the respondents indicated that current COBOL programmers were of an older generation, which implied a fear of impending retirements and the attrition of knowledge that follows.

Talking with clients appears to support the sentiments: many express great concern regarding the upcoming retirement of skilled mainframe-centric employees.

Move Towards Mobile, Social, and Big Fast Data Applications

Practically every business is using, or assessing the use of, mobile, social, and big fast data applications.  With few exceptions, mainframe technologies do not support mobile, social, or big fast data.  For the mainframe to play a role, several layers of bridging and infrastructure software must be incorporated. For instance, many banks extract data from the mainframe and load it into commodity server apps in order to support online and mobile banking. Banks do this because the mainframe doesn’t inherently support mobile or web technologies.  In addition, banks don’t want to pay the additional cost that comes with the extra mainframe MIPS (processing power) required to support a large and active mobile user base.

One might think big data and mainframe would go hand-in-hand.  And, in theory, you can run big data apps such as Hadoop on the mainframe but why would you?   Hadoop was designed to run distributed, across hundreds, or thousands of inexpensive commodity-priced x86 servers.   It’s the antithesis of a mainframe application.  Mobile, social and big data apps have qualities and characteristics best supported by the cloud: on-demand, self-service access from a broadly available network, with the ability to expand, contract, and pay for resources as needed.

Modernizing Mainframe Apps is Not for Everybody

Some IT organizations state they don’t have these issues, or that they are addressing these opportunities using the mainframe.  This may be well and true: depending upon which study you read, an estimated 60-90% of all business transactions and data are processed by mainframes.    However, many IT organizations don’t see a way to remain relevant using a mainframe in the age of cloud.  They want to modernize their legacy systems to the cloud but they see many obstacles in their pathway to success.  I’ll discuss those obstacles in detail in the next blog entry.

>> If you would like to talk to a vFabric or Java specialist about strategies to modernize your mainframe applications, please contact sales.
About the Author: Mel Stockwell is a Deputy Chief Cloud Strategist focused on VMware’s Public Sector customers, helping organizations address the opportunities, costs, and challenges, of application development and modernization efforts through the adoption of Cloud Application Platforms. Mel brings over 23 years experience developing, selling and implementing enterprise software in the public sector.  Mel has worked for the Department of the Interior, FDIC, US Patent and Trademark Office, IONA Technologies, Sterling Software, and EDS.

8 thoughts on “4 Reasons You Should Consider Modernizing Mainframe Apps in 2013

  1. Iwan 'e1' Rahabok

    Thanks for the article. Could you elaborate on “Some IT organizations state they don’t have these issues, or that they are addressing these opportunities using the mainframe.”? The reason is I don’t see the business case for mainframe other than high Exit Cost for existing mainframe-based system, or niche proprietary application (the vendor primary platform is mainframe). Thanks from Singapore.

    Reply
    1. Mel

      I know of two organizations running Linux on the mainframe with specialty engines. They believe this will allow them to leverage their existing investment in the mainframe while either building new apps, or modernizing/migrating their legacy apps to the “other side” of the mainframe. Another client, heavily invested in a proprietary SOA integration framework, believes the framework will sufficiently expose the legacy system into application service components that can be exposed to other cloud-based technologies. In both instances, I suspect you comment regarding high exit costs and proprietary software play a significant role in their decisions.

      Reply
  2. MikeC711

    Definitely some points worthy of further discussion … but the pricing is far more complex than the author understands (differences between TCA and TCO et al … specialty engines, new workload pricing, z/Linux guests, …). But the most obscure argument is the one about Cobol. Cobol is a language that runs on the mainframe. Java, python, perl, shell script, C++, et al are also languages which run on the mainframe. To suggest that people should migrate from the mainframe because fewer people know Cobol is akin to suggesting that, since some key financial software was written in Turbo Pascal (which few people know anymore), then we should bail on Windows. z/Series is a platform, as are the OS’s, the various Cloud offerings, and even the J2EE containers out there. The fact that legacy code runs on a platform does not define the platform. And I guess people have gone soft. In my 30 years in the industry, if you are moved to a project involving language X (and I’ve got skills in languages that don’t really exist anymore) … you learn language X. I guess that’s an old mind-set these days.

    Reply
    1. Mel

      Hi Mike,

      Appreciate the comments and insight. I agree with your comment regarding the complexity in determining TCO; There are many factors to consider and each client’s business case is typically unique – not something I can readily address in a blog format. However, my prior experience, as the product development manager of a mainframe application, was that modernizing on the mainframe was not our best option for lowering TCO and increasing our ability to add functions and features more quickly. Some of my clients have come to the same conclusion, but some have decided to stay on the mainframe and try zLinux and zVM.

      I suppose I did unfairly lump the OS and language together. I would have titled the blog, “Modernize your CISC-CMOS-based-3270-JCL-OS390-COBOL Apps to the Cloud” but I don’t think it would have passed marketing review ;-)

      Best,

      Mel

      Reply
      1. MikeC711

        Important to understand that there is some black art to TCO and that in many legit studies, TCO after migrating off went up, and in almost all cases, migration costs were underestimated. People forget that, now that that data is hitting the wire regularly, there are more concerns with security, firewalls, etc.. To do Z cost-effectively takes some up-front work, but there is a lot that this article Z cannot do that is incorrect (and we’ve got real live customers doing it and very pleased with it).

        Reply
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