Mainframe Modernization vs. Migration

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During the pandemic, 63% of Fortune 500 chief executive officers were accelerating their digital transformation initiatives, according to Fortune Magazine. The mainframe has been previously viewed as a less adaptable platform, but as it has evolved, so has its ability to adapt to new applications and business needs. Businesses that rely on technology struggle with the decision of whether to migrate away from the mainframe to another platform to meet their business needs or to modernize the system they have. Several studies from IDC have examined this choice, so SHARE spoke with experts to get the skinny on mainframe modernization and migration.

Nicole Fagen, lead for AIOps and Automation at Broadcom, indicates that “modernization” means different things to different people. “In our experience with customers, modernization has three major pillars: people and processes, applications, and infrastructure management,” she says. “With application modernization, we observe that customers who invest in continuous improvement receive the highest return on investment, while customers who only engage in quick fixes to mainframe applications are less satisfied.” Fagen explains, “We see modernization as opening the platform so it can be used easily and managed like other IT platforms, on premise or in the cloud. When we combine the technology with process changes, such as waterfall to Agile to DevOps and traditional ITOps to AIOps, customers are able to drive their digital transformations, while maintaining the observability and insight into their infrastructure to achieve the demanding qualities of service expected from their business lines.”

According to Fagen, “The question is, ‘What’s the best platform for running a particular workload?’ Or, ‘How can this heterogeneous set of platforms work in the most integrated and dynamic manner to meet the needs of businesses driving transformation initiatives?’”

IDC’s “The Quantified Business Benefits of Modernizing IBM Z and IBM i to Spur Innovation” study, sponsored by Rocket Software, set out to quantify whether modernizing the mainframe or replatforming/migrating away from the mainframe would be the most advantageous in terms of cost, revenue, efficiency/performance, and potential disruption. Peter Rutten, research director within IDC's Enterprise Infrastructure Practice and the author of the report, told SHARE that the study calculated “annual benefits from the modernizing/replatforming, in terms of hardware costs, software costs, staffing costs, as well as additional revenue generated directly tied to the modernized or new platform.” The study found that modernizers spent less on the modernization initiative than replatformers, even if both spent the same on new hardware. And, it also found that modernizers on IBM Z achieved significant benefits, such as 12.5% lower hardware capex, 5.8% lower software opex, 4.6% lower staffing opex, and 5.1% increased revenue directly tied to the platform.

Another study from IDC by the same author, titled “The Business Value of the Transformative Mainframe” and sponsored by IBM and Broadcom, found that participants generated about $194 million in revenue per organization — on average — when they modernized their platforms. Participants also saw important staff productivity gains and cost optimizations. IDC projected that study participants realized average benefits worth more than six times what they invested to modernize their mainframe platforms “by primarily ensuring that their businesses have a platform for expanding and maintaining their revenue base while delivering more flexible, efficient, and cost-effective mainframe platforms.”

Choosing the Right Path

Vince Re, co-founder and chief technology officer of VirtualZ, shares that whether you choose to modernize or migrate, “it’s about choosing carefully, understanding the risks and rewards, and then getting the greatest possible value from the approach you take.” He says that businesses ultimately want innovative and flexible IT services that are secure, low-cost, and reliable, and few businesses care if that comes from a mainframe or another platform, so long as their business needs are met. According to Re, many businesses are aware that mainframes have an edge when it comes to security, reliability, and low-cost transactions, which is why many have built massive portfolios of custom software that leverages the unique strengths of the mainframe platform.

Companies need to determine whether they are willing to continue investing in the mainframe, (perhaps optimizing "legacy" applications to meet new requirements), in some other platform (hoping to recreate what they built on the mainframe) that can better meet company needs, or adopt a mix of mainframes and other systems to meet business needs, which Re says can be a tough choice. He adds, “The answer is that it depends on your appetite for risk versus your need to reduce operating expenses. Only the individual organization can evaluate the tradeoffs. You really need to be clear on what your objectives, skills, budgets, and tolerance for change are in order to make an informed decision.”

Fagen adds, “One of the drivers of ‘modernization efforts,’ and a requirement of digital transformation, is the ability to operate in a more agile manner – not just IT, the business as a whole, as firms alter their business models, or increase the digitization of their product or service delivery.”

To choose the right path, companies will have to do a deep dive into their systems’ capabilities and limitations and determine if investments in digital tools to augment or improve those systems will be more worthwhile than adopting a different platform.

Re notes, for example, “You might have an aging but stable portfolio on the mainframe that's scaled for high volume, is secure, well-managed, and achieves amazing reliability and availability goals. Nobody wants the risk to rehosting work that may have evolved over decades on what may be an unproven platform.” He adds, “At the same time, a major rehosting effort for an application that's evolved bit-by-bit over many years might be hugely expensive and expose the organization to all sorts of unanticipated risk.” There are other factors to consider as well, including the role of the mainframe as part of the company’s culture.

However, Re explains, “A site with dwindling mainframe COBOL skills might accept more risk if it means getting onto a platform where they have better developer coverage. And, sometimes, tenured mainframe applications are just too fragile and brittle to modernize without making extensive changes top to bottom, which might make migration a more attractive option.” He continues, “Perhaps you've been building new applications on other platforms for a long time now, and all that's left on the mainframe is the truly legacy business processes. In these cases, where the mainframe is ‘out of sight and out of mind,’ management might adopt more of a mainframe migration preference with the goal of eventual decommissioning.” However, few organizations like to pay twice for the same function, Re says, so there's always a natural inclination to leverage what you have rather than begin anew.

Re shared that modernization might be a viable option for companies that need to implement a new mobile application that interacts with a complicated series of existing transactions. “Indeed, these transactions might be intertwined with all sorts of other applications and data, making it extremely complicated to ‘extract’ them from the environment — making the risk and cost of migration huge. It may be more useful to implement a modernized API layer on top of your existing applications,” he explains. “When you survey the options, you might find that a simple vendor product or a different way of thinking is all that's needed, making modernization a much more compelling solution. You get the capabilities you want faster, with much less risk and cost.”

 A third option could be a hybrid solution, migrating certain functions to another platform while leaving other data and functions on the mainframe. “For all these reasons, balancing the risk/reward of modernization versus the risk/reward of migration is challenging, and often you won't know the right answer without a lot of research and investigation. Getting this balance right is really the crux of ‘modernization’ versus ‘migration’ decisions,” says Re.

What’s the Priority?

Re advises that companies keep their goals and objectives aligned with whatever decisions they make. Existing systems tend to be complicated, making it difficult to identify all potential impacts to the IT operation. He adds, “In any complex system, it's seldom just a matter of recompiling a few applications. Success or failure depends on getting all the details right because surprises can be costly.” Ask these questions:

  • What other applications and data are affected?
  • How will you manage/secure/operate the resulting solution?
  • If demand increases, what's your strategy for scaling capacity?
  • What changes are needed in your DevOps processes?
  • Are there impacts to your DR strategy?

Re adds that no matter what approach is taken, project governance is important, which means assessing financial effects, schedules, staffing plans, resource requirements, and more. “This is especially true for migration strategies that often span several years. If you built custom solutions on your mainframe over decades, it would be naive to think you can recreate all of that in some other environment overnight, so long-term, careful governance takes on increased importance in these projects,” he acknowledges. “Done right, these are great opportunities for IT to demonstrate its value to the organization.”

For modernization projects, Re detailed that it helps to prioritize a small “proof of concept” before jumping in. For example, companies may look for a way to trigger existing applications in something like a mobile app, which some might believe would be the simple implementation of a new API layer over the existing applications using a vendor add-on. However, he warns, “when you get into the details, any number of other issues can emerge. It's good to ‘fail fast’ so that you can be sure that things will work the way you need them to.” Additionally, modernization strategies also require vendor evaluations because each product may have different implications for the company’s environment and could lead to a need for additional mainframe capacity, Re adds.

Benefits of Modernization

Fagen says the IDC study revealed that organizations investing in the mainframe platform realized 64% more code releases with a 44% reduction in time to release for new capabilities. “This translates directly to new business capabilities that deliver to market faster. And that’s what drives competitive advantage,” she explains.

According to Rutten, the most surprising results of the study for Rocket Software were that modernizers rated their IBM Z or IBM i higher on agility, microservices, DevOps, and open source capabilities than replatformers. They also rated IBM Z or IBM i higher on finding or keeping talent. Additionally, they paid less for their modernizing initiatives than replatformers, even if modernizing firms bought new hardware as part of the initiative. Rutten points out those modernizers also said they achieved a better customer experience. “Overall, I didn’t expect modernizers to have such across-the-board advantages compared to replatformers, but that’s what the data demonstrated,” he recalls.

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“The chart shows the percentage difference between modernizers and replatformers for software, staffing, third-party consulting, and disruption costs when both spent the same amount on new hardware within the $400,000 to $2 million range. Note that not included in the chart is the fact that many replatformers will also incur new opex from spinning up cloud solutions during the replatforming initiative.” – Peter Rutten, IDC

Moreover, Rutten explains that modernizers rated the overall performance of the platform better than replatformers. Modernizers rated their security, availability, and DR higher. However, Linux and open source enablement were less common modernization initiatives in the study. He also noted that API, mobile, and web enablement satisfaction on IBM Z was rated slightly lower by IBM Z modernizers than by replatformers, marking one area where replatformers were more satisfied. However, Rutten adds that neither group were very satisfied with these features to begin with and that migration did not provide the best outcomes for businesses.

Finding the Business Value of Digital Transformation

According to Re, “Many failed projects come down to not understanding the distinction between ‘different’ and ‘better.’ While moving an application from z/OS to the cloud might feel like a victory, it might not be if you’ve opened the door to security or higher management costs. These are certainly solvable problems — the key is to uncover them in advance.” Rather than view migration and modernization as competing alternatives, the most pragmatic alternative may be a hybrid of the two, he says. Companies with requirements to migrate workloads off the mainframe can find plenty of tools, services, and expertise to draw upon. Both approaches have their uses, and both can help customers achieve their IT goals. “Whichever you choose, it’s about choosing carefully, understanding the risks and rewards, and then getting the greatest possible value from the approach you take,” says Re. Fagen adds, “It’s important that we recast the industry conversation from technology to business value to support digital transformation.”

Fagen says that Broadcom is just one company working to build the mainframe community with free training, by partnering closely with accounts as they onboard new staff, and through its vitality program. “SHARE is a wonderful community to train new mainframers, as well, and to catch up on the latest advances,” she adds. “All members of this ecosystem need to tell stories showcasing how the right investments in the platform deliver more value. We need to lead by example and support important strategic initiatives that benefit the entire ecosystem.” In addition to joining initiatives like Open Mainframe, companies should demonstrate their commitment and lead by example, joining organizations like SHARE and partnering with customers to ensure the next generation of mainframers are ready for the industry’s future.

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