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The Top Six Reasons Companies Are Afraid of Mainframe Modernization


So, why haven’t more IT organizations embarked upon modernization efforts?


Well, modernizing applications, especially mainframe applications, comes with a perceived set of formidable challenges. As part of our “Mission Possible 2013” series, let’s take a closer look at the six main reasons companies shy away from even approaching a mainframe modernization effort. (Note: The next blog will explain why these challenges are not so formidable, and I’ll offer proven strategies for overcoming each one.)



1. Interruptions to Business

Mainframes are highly reliable, available, and serviceable so they tend to run your business and mission-critical apps. In addition, mainframe apps are very mature because they’ve been in production for years, if not decades. IT organizations fear pulling the plug on a mainframe app without extensively testing the new app (perhaps for months or years) because it may cause catastrophic issues to the business. To decrease the possibility of service interruptions, IT teams can do two things—utilize modern software testing methods or run the legacy system in parallel with the modernized app for some time. But why risk testing an entire mission critical application wholesale? In the next blog, I’ll describe incremental approaches for modernizing mainframe apps.

2. Concerns with Maintaining High Reliability, Availability and Serviceability (RAS)

Mainframes are very reliable in all regards. However, most organizations pay a high premium for all that RAS. Mainframes scale vertically; it’s essentially one server in which you must pay for additional processing capacity (MIPS) to meet peek demands. Adding mainframe-processing capacity can be very expensive, just ask large organizations such as Sears.

In fact, a whole industry of products and services has sprung-up around managing and reducing MIPS usage. So the real question is, when compared to a mainframe, does a cloud environment provide equal or better RAS at a lower cost?  The answer is yes if you implement cloud correctly.  Most public cloud providers, including Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Rackspace, achieve scale and reliability by scaling horizontally, as opposed to vertically, using virtualized workloads across low-cost commodity servers.


3. Organizational and Cultural Impact

Perhaps the biggest challenge is organizational change. An ecosystem of specialized developers, system administration, and operators support mainframe applications. Retiring the mainframe can be perceived as a threat to careers.  This may be true if an employee is not willing (or can’t) learn new skills, or if the organization doesn’t plan to retrain employees (which would be a serious mistake since many employees hold key business and system knowledge beyond the application code itself). But, this challenge exists every time an organization makes a major investment in a new technology or direction; the pivot must be handled properly, with formal change management practices. In addition, certain modernization approaches and technologies (which I’ll discuss next time) can greatly ease the impact of changes to the organization.

4. Capital Expenditures to Fund Modernization Efforts

The cost to modernize a mainframe application usually starts in the low millions and quickly climbs into the 10s of millions. But, these high estimates usually reflect the cost of a complete rewrite or “big-bang” approach, which may not be the best strategy depending upon your business case, needs, and constraints.

Some of our clients have shared cost estimates for complete rewrites and offer estimates ranging from $11 million to a whopping $200+ million.  No wonder IT organizations are afraid to modernize mainframe applications!  The reality is that there are few, if any, good business reasons for attempting to modernize a mainframe application wholesale—it can be a long, expensive process, which may take years before any value is realized by the business. A better approach, with regards to high costs, is to take an incremental approach to modernization.

5. Existence of Useful System Artifacts 

For many IT organizations, institutional knowledge of mainframe applications resides within an employee’s head and not in formal documents. The IT team faces significant challenges when they are not sure of all the functions an application provides or how it provides those functions through application code, integration, and data.

Fortunately, formal tools and processes exist to help validate and verify what functions a mainframe application provides and how the functions are delivered through code and data. Several automated code and data conversion tools are available, which parse through code and data to provide assessment and recommendation reports. This information can be used within modernization effort roadmaps.

6. Fear of the Modernization “Merry-Go-Round

Some organizations fear that modernization efforts are an endless cycle.  Trying to keep up with the pace of technology is futile. The minute you modernize a system, it’s already outdated.  To some extent this is true. Your application will never be finished if you continue to chase the next best thing.  However, it’s also true that this is the new reality of software and business today; applications must be agile and able to adapt, even to technology changes, if those changes bring about greater business capabilities and/or lower operating costs. The good news is that, unlike mainframes, cloud and cloud application technologies were built to thrive in this time of constant change.  Great clouds are built upon virtualization technologies such as vSphere and open standards such as OVF.  This allows you to refresh hardware, system software, and middleware with relative ease.  And moving your workloads (apps) to other clouds is greatly simplfied.  Great cloud applications are developed with open source software such as Apache Web Server, Apache Tomcat, and RabbitMQ.  In addition, cloud apps are structured as highly decoupled services with an extensive set of open APIs, which is very different from the rigged, monolithic and procedure structure of most mainframe applications. These characteristics allow cloud applications to keep pace with technology’s frenetic rate of change.

Overcoming Your Fear of the Obstacles

In this post, I’ve identified six major challenges to modernizing mainframe applications in the cloud. It can seem overwhelming at first–a bit of a “mission impossible.” But most, if not all, challenges are applicable to any application modernization effort. So, it’s not really the challenges stopping you but your fear of the challenges. After all, IT organizations have successfully modernized applications, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Yet it’s somewhat different this time. Unlike mainframe applications of yesterday, today’s cloud apps offer the flexibility and agility to keep pace with change. It’s the flexibility and agility demanded by your business.  So what are you really waiting for?  Why not start your modernization efforts today?

>> To learn more about vFabric in mainframe environments:

Please feel free to ask questions or make comments below and stay tuned for the next article that explains why these six challenges are not so formidable and what strategies work to overcome each one.

The Cloud is waiting for you.

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.

29 thoughts on “The Top Six Reasons Companies Are Afraid of Mainframe Modernization

  1. Mark Haynie

    Great article Mel. You know, there’s over 230B LOC of legacy transaction application code out there … most of it running as COBOL applications on zOS w/ the CICS transaction engine. My company Heirloom Computing has figured out a way to modernize these applications and move them into J2EE servers running under vCloud or public clouds. This is _not_ about connecting to a mainframe through MQ Series, but about rehosting those applications under vFabric. About 70% of the world’s transactions run on a mainframe — now its possible to move it from SYSPLEX to vmWare-based systems.

    1. Mel

      Thanks Mark!

      I recently watched a video of Heirloom Computing’s ElPaaS deploy a COBOL app to Cloud Foundry, vCloud, and other clouds – really impressive! I imagine 230 billion lines of legacy code is going to keep your company very busy!



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