When Mobility Meets The Mainframe - Opening the Mainframe to the Customer’s Mobile Device

By any measure, mobility in the enterpriseboth how it is used internally and how it is used to reach out to customersis a major paradigm shift, nothing less than representing the future of computing.  The mainframe, often perceived as IT’s “old guard,” is playing a key role in this shift, sometimes in surprising ways.  In a three-part blogs series, we examine how and where mobility and the mainframe meet, how they complement one another, and occasionally, where they clash.  In this piece we look at what the mainframe operator needs to know as a company prepares to roll out an app for customers.

A shopper visits a high-end department or clothing store and is helped by salespeople equipped with tablets that not only access the customer’s previous purchases—the better to coordinate the new item she may be considering—but can also place an order if an item is not in stock. Not only that, but in some cases, such as at Nordstrom, the salesperson could be sporting a tablet with an app in which the customer is able to select the style and other details of a suit and the made-to-measure order is placed directly with the factory for tailoring.

It is a thrilling step for mobile functionality from the retailer’s perspective. But what about the mainframe architect’s point of view? To be frank, such developments are a yawner aside from, of course, the general good news of the additional revenue and brand awareness such apps bring to the company.

A casual observer might imagine such transactions are creating a highly variable load on the back-end mainframe system, but in fact mainframe systems are built for the very task of handling consumer-driven, variable loads. Indeed for decades now the mainframe quite ably served as the back-end for many ATMs, web transactions, and complex reservation operations such as those used by airlines.

Adding mobile to the mix, “is not a significant sea change in terms of mainframe availability,” says Brian D. Peterson, VP of SHARE Inc. “You are putting a web browser in the hand of the consumer, so yes, that is different for him or her. But for the mainframe there is no difference between a transaction sent from a mobile device or a home computer.”

That said, the proliferation of mobile devices and the number of transactions that consumers are ringing up through them are not a non-event for the mainframe.

“When we think of the mainframe we imagine something like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude,” says Laura DiDio, principal of ITIC (www.itic-corp.com) —that is, it is set up with near impenetrable barriers surrounding it and nothing disrupts its operations. “But”, Didio emphasizes, “it still can be impacted by the changes brought about by mobile in varying ways, some of which can be quite subtle.”

For example, she says, the consumerization of IT means everyone—from customers, employees, to suppliers and partners—expect 24 hour access to the data. That means mainframe maintenance becomes a trickier proposition. Most customer-facing transactions are high-priority so those are unlikely to be impacted. But internal development might.

The biggest change, though, will be the resulting new data from these mobile-led applications, DiDio says, and the mainframe will have to take the growing storage and analytics and processing needs into account. Fortunately, the mainframe is no stranger to managing large amounts of data.

“You also have to consider the rise of unstructured data—now 80% of all data is unstructured,” DiDio says.  Capacity planning will eventually be impacted, with IT likely finding it must purchase more capacity on a more frequent basis.

Also, more transactions mean more audit trails and more processing for audit trails –data that also must stored, and depending on the type of data there could be regulations governing this storage and retrieval.

Another point, albeit subtle, to consider: giving customers mobile access to corporate data—and thus the mainframe—will change their behavior. While that won’t directly impact the mainframe, the new trends should be incorporated in the monitoring of the system so suspicious fluctuations can be more easily flagged.

Consider the changes to consumer behavior that mobile access to a simple checking account can bring, says Dennis O’Flynn, director of Mainframe Product Management, at Compuware.

“Whereas before they might wait to get home to check the account, now with their devices they will do so at noon or 2:00 PM or whenever they have a moment during the day,” O’Flynn says. People might also be more inclined to jump on their accounts to make sure their checks went through on payday—typically the 15th and 30th of every month—when their device makes it so convenient. Such issues, though, are only the start. What if an app goes suddenly and wildly viral?

The good news is that mobile apps are getting smarter and smarter in what they deliver to end users—an approach that benefits both the mainframe and customer, says Azita Arvani, principal of the Arvani Group.

“Mobile users don’t have to see a whole lot of information. They only need a small bite of information on the go, while doing other activities. So, mobile app writers are learning to give them less content while still taking care of their context.”

Mobility is changing where, how and how often consumers access their data. A strong ability to manage and deliver massive amounts of data positions the mainframe well to deliver information into the consumer’s hands.

Stay Tuned for Part 3: Securing It All

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