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Mainframe? Off to the Cloud!

Mainframe workloads can be migrated smoothly to the cloud today and run just as reliably there 

July 30 2021Dieter Kölbl

New perspectives for traditional mainframe workloads

"The mainframe will be dead in ten years at most" – I am sure you are familiar with these types of statements. What speaks against these bold proclamations is that they have been around for at least twenty years. First client/server systems were supposed to herald the end of the computing dinosaur, today it is the mainframe migration to the cloud. And there is definitely something truth in the latter.

Greetings from IT antiquity

A man stands in front of a large, illuminated server cabinet

Maybe this is because we fall into archaic thought patterns when the term "mainframe" is mentioned. We embark on a journey back in time to the 60s – or perhaps even further, back to the 40s, when Grace Hooper found the first bug in IT history. We see monsters weighing five tons and stretching 16 meters, like the tube-equipped Mark 1 computer (which also reminds us of a stately dinosaur in terms of its size). We feel the heat hitting our faces, we see the punch cards with the programs...

Why mainframe still matters

Without mainframe, IT would not be what it is today. In the meantime, of course, the tubes have disappeared. The latest generations of mainframes range in size from cabinet size to 19" rack units for cloud data centers and are indispensable in many areas. Did you know that mainframes handle 90 percent of all credit card transactions? Individual systems process billions of such transactions every day – reliably and securely. The modern world of online commerce would collapse without mainframes. Banks and insurance companies trust the giants. Still.

Companies are thinking about mainframe replacements 

When I talk to insurance companies, the picture is clear across the board. Some develop new software, some use standard software, and some focus on developing new themes on modern platforms. A great example in this context is Allianz, which is clearly committed to a cloud strategy, including for its core insurance systems.


Are you still running mainframes? Discover development paths and valuable tips for the future of mainframe applications. 

Three reasons for mainframe modernization

Overall, there are probably many reasons for mainframe migration, but for me, three aspects stand out as being a potential pain in the neck for our customers' IT managers: Costs, business needs, and expertise. 

1. Rising costs

Mainframe maintenance costs are immense. Even medium-sized IT systems with a few thousand MIPS currently cost between five and ten million euros per year, and this is expected to increase further in the future. It is not even the hardware which makes this so expensive. It is the specific software, including the platform services, that are responsible for a large portion of the costs. With mainframes, vendor lock-in quickly turns into a technology lock-in. And many customers are reluctant to invest in technologies that are not future proof.

2. Business momentum 

While achieving the greatest possible efficiency and a high degree of digitalization are key corporate goals, mainframe systems often do not pay attention to them. Cloud-native services are the future, as they can adapt to business requirements more quickly. But IT strategy plays an even greater role: maintaining different technologies and platforms is not only costly for the platforms themselves, but also for operations. The management of the IT landscape becomes easier and more efficient without the extra bells and whistles. And mainframes are a world of their own. This brings us to point three.

3. Where to get the employees?

Grace Hooper, the mother of "debugging", was also one of the inventors of the revolutionary COBOL. A programming "language" instead of zeros and ones. Even today, some live programs run with legacy code from "IT antiquity." Understanding this is increasingly becoming a Herculean task – heroes from yesteryear are needed to ensure the development and operation of the software. And as it is with heroes: they are few and far between. The characteristic features of the mainframe are increasingly becoming a nail in the coffin. Finding experienced mainframe experts will be a critical task.

What to do with mainframe applications?

The skyline of a city with a digital grid on top

The future of mainframe applications is essentially dependent on strategic decisions – and these, in turn, must balance technological and financial opportunities and challenges. If it remains the first choice for customers, they will need to modernize workloads on the mainframe as well. However, if they decide to replace the mainframe, then migration to the cloud is a viable option. 

Innovation with the cloud

The cloud not only lowers infrastructure costs, but also brings with it the option to use existing services such as AI functionality or automation for the applications. In this way, innovations for the mainframe applications can be quickly implemented. Microsoft's Azure platform, for example, offers more than 100 such services. A tried and tested approach is, for example, the replacement of DB2 databases with PostgreSQL and later with NoSQL databases such as Cosmos DB for certain applications.

Thinking long term

However, the change in infrastructure (in the sense of a lift & shift) should only be the first step in a long-term modernization process. To replace the large cost items, it is necessary to free the applications from platform dependencies. This can lead to massive savings in license costs. Companies should be clear about the role mainframe computing should play in the future and which mainframe modernization strategy is best for them overall.

About the author

Dieter Kölbl

Lead IT Architect, T-Systems International GmbH

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