The Mainframe’s Survival: Why So Surprised?

When will the mainframe’s survival no longer be a surprise? Even when reading positive accounts of mainframe developments, you can often detect this sense of wonder.

Take this excerpt from a recent Network Computing article about IBM’s new zBC12 and its competitive pricing:

Despite that price difference, mainframes figure to be an IBM staple for the foreseeable future.

For crying out loud, is that even in question?

While the mainframe’s survival may not be as much of a given as, say, water flowing downhill, it has been around for about five decades – and continues to thrive as new computing trends such as Big Data and cloud take hold.

Still, the sense of wonder persists, even though “the mainframe still largely defines corporate computing,” says Gabe Goldberg, a long-time SHARE volunteer who is now a freelance technology writer and editor. “Will the perception disappear? It's hardly universal. For example, look at SHARE turnout and the number of mainframe LinkedIn groups.

“And remember the pundit who at least symbolically ate his hat when the last mainframe was not turned off when he'd predicted and bet on it? More significantly, as the generation moving through the Academic Initiative and zNextGen moves into senior technical and management positions, the mindset/mindshare pendulum will reverse course a bit from where it is now, towards valuing mainframes.”

Ill Effects

It’s easy to laugh off premature predictions of the mainframe’s demise, but it’s also understandable why they exasperate mainframe professionals. The idea that the mainframe is just hanging on can have consequences.

Take this excerpt from the Network Computing article cited earlier, which quotes John Abbott, an analyst at 451 Research:

"Enterprises looking to host their own cloud-like services internally for mission critical applications are looking at hardware platforms efficient at pooling resources," says Abbott. "In some cases, the mainframe fits the bill for this scenario."

That said, there are potential risks in companies committing to mainframes. Abbott points out that skilled mainframe administrators are increasingly difficult to find, and mainframe crashes loom as possibilities.

"If systems aren't carefully maintained," says Abbott, "they can become unreliable."

Abbott’s point about a potential skills shortage is well taken; it’s a problem SHARE members know all too well. It shouldn’t, however, deter organizations from investing in mainframe technology. Rather, it should compel them to invest in skills development.

You don’t want to discourage organizations from investing in a technology because of the potential for a skills shortage. If that were the prevailing attitude, no one would ever invest in cutting-edge technology.

Who You Callin’ Old?

And it isn’t as if the mainframe is “old” technology. “Today’s mainframe is faster, has more capacity, is more reliable and more energy efficient than the mainframe of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or even those delivered three years ago in 2010,” wrote SHARE President Janet Sun in a President’s Corner blog in May 2013.

If the mainframe was truly obsolescent, companies wouldn’t invest in it. Instead, each year we see a renewed commitment not only by IBM, but also by other vendors that make mainframe technology and by mainframe customers. So let’s look at some recent examples:

  • In June, IBM released the newest member of its System z line. The zBC12, according to IBM, is “designed to help enterprises of all sizes improve customer service by exploiting the latest capabilities of the zEnterprise System. These include an efficient and flexible cloud delivery model, real-time data analytics, and enterprise mobility.”
  • EMC’s August launch of new DLm systems, the DLm 8100 and DLm 2100, are supported by an enhanced virtual tape engine and new 8 Gb/s FICON adapters. The new products provide support for up to 11.4 PB of logical capacity and up to 80% faster performance.
  • Virgin Money, the banking subsidiary of the conglomerate Virgin Group, in August extended a contract with Fujitsu that effectively prolongs the life of its mainframe system, which supports the bank's core mortgage and savings applications, until 2018.
  • Also in August, IBM completed its acquisition of virtualization management vendor CSL International in a move to enhance and simplify the management of the cloud storage capabilities of zEnterprise systems.

“CSL International expands the System z portfolio by strengthening consolidation and cloud capabilities through virtualization and simplified management to help IBM serve demand for IT that reduces operating costs, while freeing up customers’ employees and other resources,” wrote Stephen Belanger, research analyst at Technology Business Research.

Belanger’s analysis notwithstanding, you can bet someone is about to write something about how the mainframe’s survival is nothing short of a miracle – even though the mainframe is the ideal solution for what today’s corporate enterprise needs.

This excerpt from an ITProPortal article sums up why: “From automation to advanced virtualisation (sic) technologies and open industry standards, IBM System z mainframes help deliver a solid, secure foundation on which to build the virtual environment. They support expandable cloud environments with industry-leading security, as well as availability, performance and cost-effectiveness.”

So, really, rather than be surprised about the mainframe’s survival, people should wonder why any enterprise would want to tackle cloud computing, virtualization and Big Data without it.

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