Can the mainframe remain relevant in the cloud and mobile era?

IBM mainframes run more than 1.1m transactions per second, yet the mainframe has remained largely unfashionable. We investigate

The CICS (Customer Information Control System) application server, which runs on the IBM mainframe, processes 1.1m transactions per second, significantly more than the number of Google searches. Yet the mainframe has remained largely unfashionable.

On 7 April 1964, IBM unveiled its first mainframe, the System/360. Today, 80% of the world's corporate data is still managed by mainframes.

IBM Hursley laboratory director Rob Lamb says: “There are 6,900 tweets, 30,000 Facebook likes and 60,000 Google searches per second." The mainframe CICS runs 1.1m transactions per second, which equates to 10bn per day.

These numbers illustrate the prevalence of the IBM mainframe, which for the last half a century has been the technological workhorse enabling government policy and business processes.

It has also kept up with the times, supporting modern programming environments based on Java and C++. More than a quarter of the mainframe processing capacity that IBM ships is used to run Linux. In fact, server consolidation has been one of the big drivers for the mainframe, especially given that the latest zEnterprise mainframe can run 100,000 virtual Linux servers.

Lamb says: "We have perpetually managed to continue to reduce the cost of computing associated with running the mainframe." 

The modern zEnterprise is about the size of a large American fridge. Behind the two sleek black doors sit four processing units configured with a total of 3Tbytes of shared RAM, two laptop workstations for admin use, UPSs and networking. Only the SAN is external. There are multiple levels of redundancy and the mainframe can be configured while it is running.

Applications, or workloads, run in logical partitions, IBM's term for virtualisation, which it introduced on the System/370 mainframe in 1973.

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A platform for modern times

Lamb says the mainframe has kept up with shifts in computing paradigms and application systems, such as the move to the web and mobile technology. "The platform is continually reinventing itself to remain relevant for cloud and mobile computing and to be able to run the most popular application server packages," he says.

This means the mainframe is behind much of the technology in modern society. Lamb adds: "If you are using a mobile application today that runs a transaction to check your bank balance or transfer money from one account to another, there is a four in five chance that there is a mainframe behind that transaction."

Yet applications that were developed 50 years ago can still run on the latest zEnterprise, says Lamb. This is quite a feat, given that 27 years ago, when Lamb joined IBM , the Hursley mainframe facility would have taken up an entire large machine room. The machines would have been water-cooled and there was even an on-site plumber to fix the cooling system.

"As long as the application is running effectively, why would you change it?" Lamb says. One IBM customer in the finance industry has been running a credit card authorisation application on the mainframe continuously for 12 years, he says. In that time, the application has never been taken down for planned or unplanned maintenance. It has just kept running – testimony to the inherent stability of the mainframe platform.

It's an uphill battle with tier 1 cloud service providers because they grew their own [IT] capabilities

Jose Castano, director, IBM System z workloads and initiatives

The mainframe has also enabled customers to evolve legacy applications to modern computing. "Take a CICS application developed in Cobol, which was accessed from a green screen terminal on a laptop," says Lamb. "Now that the mainframe supports cloud, you can have a nice, modern user interface for the same applications." 

The application logic remains unchanged, but the user interface is now being rendered on a mobile device or a web page.

The challenges

According to analyst Gartner, of the 100 largest banks in the world, 92 use System z mainframes. But since the dawn of the client server era of computing, IT shops have been trying to migrate away from mainframe systems.

Last year, Computer Weekly reported that Irish Life had migrated 97% of its mainframe workload onto a Windows server environment to save costs and help expand its business. At the time, Irish Life's chief technical architect, Barry Ryan, said: "We looked at how to reduce cost and felt we could get an 80% cost saving in operational expenditure by moving out of the mainframe environment." 

The insurer migrated 250 mainframe MIPs of processing onto three £30,000 HP servers, achieving considerable savings.

The biggest threat to the mainframe is arguably hyper-scale computing, favoured by the big internet companies. New age web-scale IT organisations such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and PayPal do not choose to run their applications on mainframes, says Gartner.

A 2012 study from WinterGreen Research demonstrated the savings of an IBM zEnterprise 114 mainframe over a VMware setup using HP ProLiant DL685. WinterGreen Research calculated that a suite of Linux web services applications running on 80 HP blade servers with VMware would cost  $127,225 a year, while the same application configuration on the zEnterprise 114 would cost $67,787. The zEnterprise 114 (or z196) server is cost-efficient because it uses less power and fewer software licences, the study said.

Such savings make the mainframe a logical choice for running public cloud services, yet, major hardware firms, including IBM, have failed to gain traction here. Jose Castano, director, IBM System z workloads and initiatives, says: "It's an uphill battle with tier 1 cloud service providers because they grew their own [IT] capabilities, and take a custom approach with white boxes." 

Instead, IBM has positioned the mainframe as a cloud in a box for tier 2 cloud service providers, which are looking for off-the-shelf products.

The software ecosystem

Platforms live and die by their software partners, and Gartner says IBM has attracted more than 1,300 software companies to develop for the mainframe. One of those firms is Micro Focus, which, during the 1990s, made a tidy profit from helping companies perform mainframe Y2K coding on Windows machines.

As long as the application is running effectively, why would you change it?

Rob Lamb, laboratory director, IBM Hursley

Derek Britton, director at Micro Focus, says: "The IBM mainframe is an enterprise-class server, and we have invested heavily to support it. I remember being in a meeting with a customer and asked them to describe the value of the mainframe environment. They said they use the mainframe to run the business, and the other servers are used to run other things. The mainframe is the lifeblood of the world’s biggest enterprises."

Micro Focus's business is to help its customers grow their IT services by leveraging their mainframe infrastructure. "It is our job to smooth the path," says Britton. "What enterprises are trying to do today, or in the future, is a far cry from what they were doing years ago. It is our job at Micro Focus to make the mainframe environment streamlined to enable applications to be developed rapidly." 

IT departments are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. The mainframe is regarded as a system that is slow to change. The checks and balances that keep it running at sometimes greater than five nines of availability (99.999% uptime) may be used by its detractors as a failing of the mainframe's modus operandi.

A recent survey by Micro Focus highlighted the growing level of IT debt, with IT departments unable to keep up with the changes required by the business. According to Micro Focus's survey, IT debt has risen by one-third in the past 18 months.

It is our job to make the mainframe environment streamlined

Derek Britton, director, Micro Focus

Automated tools, such as the software that Micro Focus develops, can be used by IT administrators to analyse the complex interdependencies in mainframe environments, allowing staff to speed up the process of making changes, says Britton. Mainframe languages such as Cobol and PL/1 can run within the Eclipse environment, allowing the quality assurance step in mainframe software development to run on Windows, rather than consume costly mainframe MIPs. "Customers can accelerate testing by 50%," says Britton.

In the Gartner paper Assessing the next 50 years for the IBM, analyst Mike Chuba noted that IBM has worked with academia to develop next-generation talent to potentially work on the mainframe, and eventually replace the baby-boomer generation associated with the mainframe. 

"IBM now has over 1,000 schools officially part of the program," Chuba wrote in the paper. "It has supplemented this with the creation of a System z jobs board, an initiative to match up employers in need of mainframe talent with individuals looking for mainframe jobs."

Michelle Woolley, an IT and graduate manager at IBM Hurlsey, has recently overseen the UK part of an IBM competition called Master the Mainframe, to encourage young programmers to develop an interest in the technology. "The competition originally started in the US in 2005," she says. "It began because there was increasing demand for mainframes and new skills." 

The competition is used to build awareness of the mainframe and enable students to gain some of the skills they would need to work in a mainframe environment.

Fashions come and go, but style is a constant

The IT industry is shifting emphasis towards systems of engagement to enable businesses to understand their customers better. In this new age, IBM's Castano says the mainframe is very much relevant. "Customers depend on the mainframe to be their system of record," he says. 

Castano says social, analytics and mobile applications go hand in hand with the mainframe, which offers a strong system of record that can scale and is always available.

In September 1963 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, car maker Porsche introduced the 901 sports car, which would later become the 911. Arguably, like the 911, the mainframe, at 50, represents the pinnacle of high performance and reliability. It may never turn heads or stir the soul like its rivals but, like the Porsche 911, it will loyally serve its owner, delivering performance day in and day out. 

Micro Focus's Britton adds: "The Porsche 911 is 50 years old and, in 2014, people still want one." Meanwhile, although business leaders may not consider the mainframe fashionable, 50 years on, it is very much a constant factor in running a successful enterprise.

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