Mainframes: Time to rip the heart out of your business?

The mainframes at the heart of some companies are decades old, but removing them is a massive ordeal which one HP exec likens to a heart transplant — a necessary yet painful operation many companies are loath to undergo.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

The mainframes at the heart of some companies are decades old, but removing them is a massive ordeal which one HP exec likens to a heart transplant — a necessary yet painful operation many companies are loath to undergo.

Speaking at the HP Asia Pacific and Japan Executive Forum in Bali, Rob Becker, HP business development manager, Business Critical Systems ANZ, said mainframes are still dogged with skills and applications problems — but replacement remains an ordeal.

With staff that wrote the original mainframe applications likely to have long since left the business, the mainframe's structure and code is hard to change. Add to the mix applications written in outdated programming languages, and it's hard enough for current IT employees to maintain the mainframe, let alone add functionality, Becker said.


The skilled workers required to maintain the machines are also becoming scarce as more mainframe professionals retire, according to Becker. "The knowledge they take with them is just not taught in [universities] today," he said.

A significant portion of the people who understand companies' mission critical systems are all eligible to retire during the next five years according to a February report by Gartner analyst Dale Vecchio, with some 25 percent to 30 percent of employees with legacy skills eligible to retire in the next three years.

"Despite efforts by IBM to establish a growing skill base for mainframes, there is little other industry-supported activity in this area. Not only is the syntax of traditional mainframe legacy languages rarely taught (COBOL, PL/1, Assembler, Software AG's Natural), but the procedural approach to application development is not the focus of modern AD architectures," he said in an earlier report.

However, replacing legacy mainframe systems is a major operation. "Taking mainframes out is like a heart transplant," HP's Becker said, as the mainframe is housing the backend functions that keep the business running. "If you tried to replace it and you got it wrong, it would cripple the business."

According to a research note by Vecchio, organisations carrying out mainframe modernisation need to consider that applications built for the mainframe over the decades differ in style from today's applications, meaning modernisation will ential an application architecture shift. Enterprises also need to take into account the fact that "the quality of service of the mainframe represents the epitome of reliability, availability and serviceability," and migrations will take a lot of effort to reproduce this quality.

HP has carried out 50 mainframe migrations in Asia Pacific and Japan over the last 18 months, according to Becker, with the Asian market holding over 1000 mainframes.

However, Australia has less than 100 mainframes, he said, which are running core systems in large companies such as banks, airlines and government agencies such as Centrelink.

These companies have been avoiding the risk of replacing the mainframe by using a surround strategy: keeping the mainframe at the core, and surrounding it with systems running applications such as net banking, Becker said. However, the strategy can't go on forever, he continued: "You can only go so far before the core itself can no longer support the business."

However, Gartner is not hailing the death of the mainframe, according to Vecchio in a separate report. "Re-platforming will be a good strategy in many cases, albeit one with significant costs and risks of its own. There will be cases where workload and QOS requirements will, at least for now, be best met on the mainframe." Companies remaining on the mainframe need to start training programs to battle the dearth of mainframe skills, Vecchio suggests.

Reaching the decision to change is difficult, HP's Becker said. The CEO and the board of the company need to be behind it; it needs a dedicated CIO, because the migration will take longer than the average CIO tenure; and resistance within the organisation will be phenomenal. "No one wants to have their heart ripped out," he said.

Suzanne Tindal travelled to Bali as a guest of HP.

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