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:
- Why should IT organizations consider modernizing mainframe apps to the cloud?
- What are the obstacles to modernizing mainframe apps?
- How can app modernization costs and risks be mitigated?
- 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
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.
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.
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|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.|