Once a new technology becomes mainstream the industry needs to find a new thing to sell its customers. It’s been this way since the time IBM provided big metal boxes with integrated software and called the system a mainframe. The recently introduced z15 is the latest version of this approach to IBM computing, with a single, highly integrated enterprise server to run application workloads.
But vertical integration relies on highly resilient, high performance hardware and software system, and these tend to come at a high cost. So the alternative is distributed computing, where workloads can be organised to run across farms of low-cost servers. These servers used to be physical, then they were virtualised, and now everyone in the industry talks about containers and using Kubernetes for container orchestration. Then there is the public cloud, which is providing a template to show IT departments how they can build internal IT as a service, that mimics the ease-of provisioning of IaaS, PaaS and SaaS.
All of these things are welcome additions to the IT toolbox. But the issue the CIO faces, is that enterprise IT is renowned for hoarding old tech: nothing ever really gets thrown away. Just consider the legacy acronyms from the last few decades. Each promised to revolutionise the way software systems were developed. There was the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (Corba) from the Object Management Group; the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Enterprise Service Bus (ESB). Each offered an industry vision for another three letter acronym: EAI, or Enterprise Application Integration.
These days, EAI is often considered too complex and costly a programme to run. The gaps between business processes running on different IT systems is now called digital transformation. And rather than re-keying, or cutting and pasting from one IT system to another, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) does this rekeying under the control of a bot running a script.
What is fascinating is that the approaches being taken to achieve RPA are not dissimilar to how legacy green screen systems used to be given a shiny new Windows front-end that re-keyed user input into a terminal session, or how the early price comparison sites in the late 1990s screen-scraped pricing information.
The z15 may be the latest incarnation of what IT people used to call the legacy “mainframe” system. But legacy is embedded everywhere in modern IT. The DNA inside SOA, ESB and even RPA have much in common with modern cloud architectures.