Forgotten but not gone: Why mainframes remain the power behind tech's throne

Forgotten but not gone: Why mainframes remain the power behind tech's throne

Summary: They might not be as fashionable as cloud computing, but the mainframe remains at the heart of many computing environments.


These behemoths of computing might not be as exciting to young developers as cloud and mobile projects, but mainframes are still the power behind many business applications.

According to a survey of CIOs more than half (55 percent) of enterprise applications call upon the mainframe to complete transactions. And that shows little sign of decline – nine out of ten of the CIOs surveyed said their mainframe workloads are increasing, and distributed applications have caused a 44 percent increase in workload over the past five years.

Nine out of ten said new customer-facing applications are accessing the mainframe; however this combination of old and new technologies is adding to the CIOs' headaches - three quarters of CIOs said the complexity of applications working across distributed and mainframe environments is making problem resolution take longer.

Four out of five said they had no visibility of the actual end-user experience and 63 percent of companies admitted they were often unaware of performance problems until calls start coming into the help desk.

Mainframes tend to be stable and reliant pieces of infrastructure, bought so long ago that the costs have long since been written off. And while cloud services might be attractive for new or particularly bursty types of applications, for long-standing and predictable processing jobs these hunks of big tin are still extremely useful to IT departments.

In addition, rewriting mainframe apps for the cloud age is no easy feat: one problem with mainframes is that most of the engineers with the relevant skills are nearing retirement: one company recently described the search for younger staff with the right skills as "looking for a unicorn."

The Compuware-commissioned survey spoke to 350 CIOs at large companies in Australia, Benelux, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.

Further reading on mainframes


Topics: Enterprise Software, Big Data, Data Centers

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  • Mainframes still popular

    Because most are still running 30+ year old apps on them and IT execs are simply petrified to deal with the costs and risks of getting them off the mainframe and on to scalable lower-end/less expensive hardware. The costs can be excessive and most large and medium sized companies don't have the drive or the stomach or the cash to convert off the mainframe platform. Don't get me wrong, I think the mainframe will continue to play a role, but its more because they are simply there to continue operations of very old antiquated apps that no one has the guts to convert or replace.
    • That wouldn't explain why the load keeps increasing...

      New applications are always being written for mainframes. And mainframes are still being sold.

      They have what it takes - high reliability, high speed, huge capacity, long uptimes.. all the things Windows lacks.
      • Not quite

        We can't offer 24x7 because our mainframe constantly requires down time. I don't know what kind of shop you work in, but I work in a highly competitive business where we have to offer 24x7 and our mainframe and our mainframe apps do not offer this, nor are they even close. In addition, with respect to my Company and the Companies we compete with, NONE of them are building "new" mainframe applications. They are either getting off the shelf mainframe software, which is extremely expensive and extremely expensive to support or they are living off of fixes to their 30+ year old systems. Perhaps different industries have a different aspect to them, but in our industry we are moving towards x86 INTEL/Linux virtualization and cloud infrastructures for ALL of our new apps. Nothing new for our mainframe environment and in fact our Company has announced they wish to migrate OFF the mainframe in the future, hence they won't approve any new mainframe development and will not approve any new mainframe off the shelf software. Again, this is just one industry, you may be in a completely different industry that dictates the opposite. But from what I have been hearing there are more and more company's and even entire industry's moving away from the mainframe because of lack of skilled talent and other weaknesses that don't lend it to newer modern apps. COBOL simply isn't cutting it any more. Sorry.
        • Really? A BIG company?

          Has your big company ever hear of parallel sysplex? Our little company (fortune 100) is writing new applications for our dinosaurs all of the time and we ALMOST never have to take down the applications. that is because we have configured our environment to share the load between mainframes. And for those of you who have never seen one of these "behemoths", they are about the size of a home freezer. Why won't they go away? Because they keep going, and going and going...
        • You don't have a mainframe.

          You have something some idiot calls a mainframe, likely just because it cost over $10,000.

          Real mainframes don't crash.

          IBM makes real mainframes. Cray makes real mainframes, even though they are using relatively off the shelf CPU/GPU, the environment they are in isn't off-the-shelf.

          Your "mainframe" sounds more like a rack of Dell servers.

          Mainframes have dual/quad power supplies, dual/autofailover CPUs, automatic process migration, Hotswap CPU, memory, disk, controllers,...

          Evidently your company is going down the tubes.
        • COBOL does cut it

          We have bought a company for its software, the core of which is COBOL. Embarrassingly it’s the most stable and highly performing part of their suite. And the cost to rewrite it in anything new, for specious returns is embarrassingly high. Cheaper to train (not so ) youngsters in Ms Hopper’s language
    • Thirty years ago... there was true subsecond response time...

      Subsecond response time was achieved with merely 20mips...
      While it is true that many mainframe applications, ancient ones, keep running and are not being updated; thew reasons go both ways. Is it because corporations are lazy? Or is it because nothing being offered is really deliverying the power without scrificing control... most of it to very weak and not robust systems?
      The real problem is the approach taking by many large corporations to 'alleviate' the problem, which is to go out and bring cheap labour by truckloads, forgetting completely about those main characteristics of that 'culture' when the mainframe was king; loyalty and professionalism... I guess they will forever blame the mainframe. The mainframe is not death but it is transformed and it is not to be seen as old as a very efficient server.
      • Subsecond...

        But how much work did that 20MIPS machine do before it responded in less than a second? An error check in a CICS app that threw a message on the CRT? Maybe it updated journal and VSAM file with one of those "fun" layouts with a common header containing a record type followed by a "multi-redefine" with a few occurs thrown in because the data architect's relative owns a local programmer bar and it sells more beer?

        I'd like to see a mainframe duplicate what Google provides as you type in the search box. Mainframes would have a helluva time dealing with an Ajax call like that.
  • Crisis in the works

    These dinosaurs should have gotten on board the PC-based server craze of the 1980s and 1990s. They seriously missed the boat. Now they're stuck with obsolete apps running on obsolete hardware, in an age of commoditized hardware and cloud computing.

    Pretty much nobody is learning to operate or code for mainframes anymore. Soon they'll be left twisting in the wind.

    Should have planned ahead, folks.
    • When

      will you realize that the mainframe or server is what your precious iPhone, Tablet and other "smart" devices all connect to. Guess what will happen if the mainframes are not maintained, IT is a fragile system in so many ways and needs skilled people who know how to use code, many younger people just aren't interested if it hasn't got a touchscreen....
      • Doubtful...

        Even a banking app connects to a modern services layer that either queues transactions to a message queue which is then consumed by the mainframe or data is duplicated and refreshed in the edge app. No way a mainframe app is responding to JSON or AJAX calls from a iPhone app. (Running Linux on the mainframe doesn't count.)
    • What are your plans?

      UNIX systems sales have been in decline for most of the last decade... PC sales have been going down the toilet the last couple of years... system z has been growing the last 2 years...and have been growing for the most part over the last decade. They are not going away anytime soon.

      Modern mainframes can/do support windows,UNIX and Linux at their respective price points.
    • You don't know mainframes.

      They run UNIX, AIX, Linux. and sometimes even Windows (though they are not as reliable).

      One mainframe of the z class (with 4 CPUs I believe it was) can run 1200 VMs without overloading.
      And have 24x7 uptime.
    • Interesting

      cross-section of the buzzwords of the last few years - 'dinosaurs', 'missed the boat', 'commoditized', and, of course, 'cloud', not to mention rounding off with 'twisting in the wind'. Information density tending to zero, but sociologically interesting I suppose...
    • How much the market tried! Only to crash, the market, sunk in hiogh costs

      I recall the client/server revolution that never really made it because of the costs involved and which was resqued by that induced 'panic' known as Y2K, because planes were going to stop in the middle of the air because of date changes... The market again played a trick... the real problem was and still is management. Because management is considered as some sort of step in a ladder measuring career success. Managers are supposed to manage not being technicians and must not panic before anything is being said to them.
      Many 'revolutions' are coming and the markets are going to move zillions and the ones that keep looking for somehting to blame, will insist, it is the mainframe... buy this or that and everything will be alright...
      • Client Server Was Fine...

        Deployment sucked...
  • Mainframes and their apps

    Mainframes are constantly being updated the apps you speak of being 30 years old is FUD. The original app may have been written that long ago but it has been re-written and updated. Those of you , and you know who you are, have been riding the pc /server wave for so long you are too blind and or ignorant to see or understand the truth.
    We have been running virtual servers and databases on our mainframe since 2005 so I laugh at those of you fools who don’t know the mainframe.
    Oh, by the way, I work with the mainframe and also work on the server side utilizing VMware.
    Servers by design are great at cpu things but when it comes time for I/O the mainframe is way ahead of the game.
    Really mainframe off the shelf stuff is expensive, everything on a server is cots and if you are a mom and pop shop you go to walmart and buy your software so it is cheap. But if you run an enterprise the software is very expensive for the server.
    Another thing, it only takes 1 mainframe to run multiple apps, whereas you have 1 maybe 2 apps per server so you have to run a dozen servers or more to duplicate the work of one mainframe.
    Before you beginning sounding off about something have either the experience across platform or read more than one article from gartner.
    • How funny

      Defending the indefensible simply won't work. Running a mainframe under Linux emulation isn't the same as running native Linux even in a virtual environment. I/O is better on the mainframe? Oh please, get a clue with SANS and advanced storage and in-memory databases, the server/virtual environment runs rings around the old mainframe. Sorry, your name calling and bad attitude just proves the future in computing won't be involving the mainframe. Try to get work elsewhere, of course since the mainframe market is shrinking steadily, I'm not sure who would hire you. LOL
  • SANS

    Oh yes, once you start running I/O over the network that vastly improves I/O time. And again you need to run your DBs on seperate servers wheras the mainframe can do it on a single engine.
    Really running a mainframe under LInux...really that shows how little you know about mainframes. Bad attitude, no not rally just trying to enlighten the masses. again, read something more than a gartner report, please.
    Again, I have been on all sides of the room and every computer does something better than another.
    • It's just your opinion

      Your response actually illustrates how little you know. Repeatedly saying you've experienced all facets of mainframe & distributed systems just shows that you are on the defensive and really have no facts to back up your responses. Its pretty obvious you have very little background and knowledge in any of these areas. Its sad we have people on here who pretend to be experts, but in reality are even below novice level in what they know. Oh well, its of course your right to have an opinion, even though it has zero basis in fact.