The arrival of web services has reduced terrors of mainframe deployment, says Andy Gutteridge
Planning a mainframe integration project can feel a little like organising a bank holiday excursion. It seems like a good idea, until you check the weekend travel and weather forecast, "Major engineering works are expected to cause long delays, with the likelihood of severe weather making driving conditions hazardous - don't travel unless your journey is absolutely necessary."
For risk-averse mainframe users, there's good news and bad news ahead. The bad news is that "messing with the mainframe" is no longer an optional excursion: it is an absolutely necessary step on the journey towards the seamlessly integrated, responsive and agile information infrastructure that modern businesses need to compete effectively. The good news is that mainframe integration need no longer be a journey into the kind of territory that used to be marked "here be dragons". The advent of web services interface standards and the emerging concept of service oriented architecture (SOA) development have changed the rules of the game.
Although some may harbour reservations about the technical claims made for web services, few will disagree that a simplified route to mainframe integration has huge potential benefits for business.
Over 40 years of investment in mainframe technology has produced a platform whose 24x7 reliability, availability and scalability has only recently been achieved by open alternatives. More importantly, mainframe systems have also developed into what amounts to an electronic journal of corporate record - a veritable treasure trove of core business logic and essential data.
The chief reason for investing in mainframe integration is to exploit these assets within new or revamped business applications. In theory, this library of business logic should provide a rich source of code that is licence-free, closely tailored to its owners' specific requirements and available in a form that lends itself to being pulled apart, reassembled and re-used to reflect the constantly changing functional requirements of business.
In practice, however, this is exactly what most companies have learned not to expect from their mainframe software estate. Instead, mainframe applications are seen as troublesome legacy systems - inaccessible, inflexible, and complex collections of abstract code that obstruct, rather than enable, business change.
Web services and SOA enable organisations to efficiently and economically exploit their mainframe assets by de-emphasising complexity in favour of simplicity, and by moving away from an abstract software-centric view of systems integration to one focussed on business functionality and processes.
Rather than assuming that integration requires extensive rewriting of old code or creation of new code, web services starts from the premise that "we've got a whole bunch of resources that we can reuse", and encourages business to proceed in an iterative piecemeal way.
The contrast with conventional systems integration methods could not be starker. Where systems integration has ominous overtones and tends to be thought of as a huge task that requires customers to try and do everything at once, web services engenders a less complex, more sensible and more economic approach.
That, when coupled with service oriented architecture, puts process and the business at the centre of what you are doing.
As soon as companies start to wrap existing discrete functions in web services interfaces, they are able to do things once that they used to have to do many times. Suddenly, without a major investment in explicitly component-based systems technology, mainframe applications that used to be considered an expensive legacy burden become a raft of potential new services that can be wrapped, refined and optimised as business requirements demand.
Mainframe integration that provides direct standards-based access to the processing power of legacy environments but without requiring any interference with the data or business logic on the mainframe, offers an attractive proposition.
As the SOA and web services market moves towards maturity and companies start to consider the massive increases in business agility that event driven architectures (EDA) can deliver, those companies that have invested in EDA-ready infrastructures will be poised for even greater success.
Andy Gutteridge is vice-president of international operations at Neon Systems