The mainframe is not dead

Despite rumours to the contrary, the mainframe is alive and well even though its pervasiveness has shrunk.

If you've been in the IT business long enough, you'd know that things move along in cycles. Back in the 80s there was a shift from mainframes to client/server systems. Businesses replaced their legacy hardware with more generic hardware running Oracle or SQLServer and the shift continued. 

Now, as we move through the second decade of the new millennium, centralisation is back in vogue in the form of cloud computing. Today, we look for centralised hardware and software, albeit operated by third parties for us, as an important part of our operating infrastructure. However, that's only highlighted the need for some businesses to run systems that are capable of high transactional volumes and it highlights why some businesses haven't just held on to their mainframe systems but continually upgraded them keeping up with the Intel crowd when it comes to Moore's Law. 

James Russell, from BMCSoftware's Mainframe Server Management division, explains that "At the backend of every business there is data that needs to be securely held and well managed. It says that some businesses will, in some circumstances, still need some platforms like IBM's Z-series technology." 

This leads to the question of what the best platform is for that business. In some cases, the past investment in system and depth of integration with business operations means that the a switch away from mainframe systems to client server architecture may not be in the best interest of the business. 

According to Russell, there are still about 40 or so mainframe sites operating in Australia, with many more handled by outsourced providers and perhaps 1000 across all of Asia Pacific. And while the overall marketshare is shrinking there are some clear use-cases for mainframe architectures, particularly in places such as China, India and Indonesia see rapid growth in their needs for high-end systems. And, in those cases, a mainframe may be a better proposition than the more pervasive architecture we're seeing today. 

"It's not necessarily about the box and processing speed. It's more about how actually put the layers around that technology set so that you can manage it as effectively as a mainframe system. That's something that's of significant value when you look at why they are keeping them in the backend of banks. It's also half a billion dollars or more of investment to get it from a mainframe platform to something that's running Intel and Linux. Is that a good investment of money?" says Russell. 

One of the other advantages that Russell points to is that mainframes are able to pack a lot of processing power into a compact footprint that is more power efficient than a comparable client-server system. 

So, what's the downside? Do we have the skills in our IT workforce to deploy and operate a mainframe environment. Back in the late 1990s, IT departments were focussed on overcoming any potential Year 200 issues. One of the positive outcomes for that time is that it forced businesses to look critically at systems and decide whether or not to retain systems in the long term. Now, a decade after the dust has settled, the time to evaluate system suitability and long term sustainability has returned. 

We asked Russell if the goal was now about maximising the return in the long-term investment. After all, if a business has sunk millions of dollars into systems and hardware there may be a reticence to give that investment away. "That probably a part of it. But I think it's more that 'what is the alternative solution?' For many organisations that are going to keep running the platform there's no end date on the platform. We see organisations trying to exploit it and get more out of it". 

It's clear that much of the world has moved away from traditional mainframe systems. But that doesn't mean that the platform is dead and that there is value in either retaining, expanding or deploying mainframe systems. The main challenge for businesses retaining and expanding their mainframe systems isn't technical though. It will be about training and retaining younger staff as the mainframe-age workforce is nearing or beyond retirement.

Read more on Networking hardware