Why the mainframe is still going strong

Data centre mainframe
(Image credit: Bigstock)

Mainframe technology has played a crucial role in the business world for decades, yet as computing technology has become more mobile over the years, many have predicted its downfall.

Despite these gloomy predictions, however, it still appears to be going strong. Indeed, mainframe technology has evolved greatly in the five decades since it first appeared and many organisations, including 70% of Fortune 500 businesses, are still using mainframe systems to power core business operations.

Nevertheless, it's still perceived as somewhat dated and many educational systems have dropped it from their curriculums, causing a skills crisis. We explore how companies are still making use of this technology while dealing with the skills gap.

Keeping the market alive

Mainframe continues to make a big impact among businesses, and there is a plethora of firms developing the technology. One example is Rocket Software, a company that has been developing tools for the IBM z Systems mainframe platform for more than 26 years.

Guy Tweedale, regional vice president of Rocket Software, says mainframe is far from dead. "The predictions for the demise of the mainframe have never been so wrong as they are today. If anything, it's one of the tech industry's own cases of 'fake news'. In reality, the majority of the world's leading companies especially in the banking industry continue to depend on the mainframe for their critical business processes," he tells IT Pro.

"Companies want a secure, scalable and flexible platform, which provides the trust organisations need and their customers expect. The mainframe delivers exactly this; true end-to-end encryption, almost endless scalability and the ability to dynamically adjust pricing to suit vastly different needs."

He argues that mainframe computers have advanced hugely in recent times.

"The modern mainframe no longer relies on COBOL to operate. It can work with newer, more popular languages and tools like Python, JavaScript, Java, C++ and Git, which are without a doubt the future of mainframe development," says Tweedale. "What's more, they ensure that the next generation of millennial developers can work with the mainframe."

"Mainframes are often an untapped resource for businesses when it comes to digital transformation. As a deep reservoir of critical business information, companies should be investing in software tools that can help them get access to the incredibly valuable data stored within the mainframe. This is the key to developing new applications and extending existing applications to drive fresh revenue streams and keep your company competitive in our fast-paced world of tech innovation," he adds.

Modernising the technology

American IT firm Compuware is also helping to modernise mainframe solutions. The company develops products that fit into a unified DevOps toolchain, allowing cross-platform teams to manage mainframe applications, data and operations within one operation. It wants to help developers build, analyse, test and deploy mainframe technologies with efficiency and precision.

Steven Murray, solutions director at the firm, says there's a need modernise the mainframe environment and reduce the reliance on specialist skills moving away from the dreaded green screen. He argues the mainframe workforce has been dwindling as the baby-boomer generation reaches retirement age.

"The mainframe has underpinned the IT ecosystems of large enterprises for over 50 years," he says.

"This longevity is due to the immense compute power the mainframe provides, enabling it to process over 30 billion transactions every day and keep the digital world turning.

However, those who have commanded the mainframe since the 1960s are passing retirement, and few universities are teaching the skill-sets needed to carry the torch into its future. Many organisations mistakenly think the only solution is to rip, rewrite and replace their mainframe applications a costly and risky endeavor [whereas] the simplest solution is to modernise on-platform."

"COBOL is just another programming language that is easily learned, and modern tooling enables newer generations of developers to work in the mainframe environment using the same tools and approaches they would on other platforms; removing the need for specialist skills."

Looming skills crisis

Although companies are paying attention to mainframe, that's not to say there aren't any challenges. There's been a skills crisis looming for years, with many educational institutions dropping the technology as a subject. Mark Cresswell, CEO of mainframe software company LzLabs, says the area needs more modernisation.

"While the mainframe is used by a large number of Fortune 500 companies, it can't survive without the experts who created it. The mainframe skills crisis is a ticking time bomb. Attempts to educate young mainframe administrators are not scalable enough to fix this," he says. Then there's the challenge of being locked into costly proprietary hardware and software. Mainframe applications can also prevent implementation of modern technologies, restricting the path to digital transformation.

He says software-based technology can give mainframe a longer lease of life. "Solutions such as a software defined mainframe, however, enable organisations to run mission-critical mainframe applications in modern, open environments, such as the cloud with little maintenance or risk involved. It's a common misconception that these technologies can't replicate the availability, serviceability and reliability of the mainframe.

"Moore's Law has taken x86 performance to before unseen levels, while the ubiquity of cloud platforms enables them to meet these requirements perfectly. By re-hosting applications in a software defined environment, businesses liberate legacy applications with a seamless shift from mainframe runtime environments to commercial off-the-shelf Linux platforms without application or data changes."

It's fair to say that mainframe has stood the test of time over the decades, and it's certainly interesting to see so many large companies still using the technology. However, there's no escaping the fact that mainframe is a little dated. For it to survive, firms need to find ways to modernise such solutions and ensure there's fresh talent to work it.

Main image credit: Bigstock

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.