Getting the Mainframe Right

Perspective from Industry Surveys

Despite reports of its imminent death a quarter of a century ago, the mainframe remains vital- sufficiently so to attract the attention of IT thought leaders Deloitte and Forrester as well as multi-billion dollar software provider BMC, in the form of industry surveys.  Supported by these surveys, this blog highlights

  • The ongoing vitality of the platform
  • The keys to ongoing success
  • The common challenges mainframe shops will continue to face

The ongoing vitality of the platform

Many readers of a post such as this will be familiar with oft-used illustrations featuring the percent of banks or of the Fortune 500 which rely on the mainframe, or, for example, the inability to travel to an event without touching a mainframe (reservation systems for air, car and lodging).[i]

There are absolutely organizations both migrating workload from and sunsetting the mainframe.  One wrote to us with great pride last month announcing they had done so.

According to our data, over 1300 entities continue to operate the mainframe.  And in a surveyed subset of these,

  • 91% identified expanding their mainframe footprint as a moderate/critical priority in the next 12 months[ii]
  • 90 percent of BMC respondents see the mainframe as a platform for new growth and 68 percent of respondents expect MIPS to grow[iii]
  • 74% of these professionals see the mainframe as a long-term strategic platform[iv]

Mainframes are also taking on workloads that are less traditionally identified with it, such as web-based applications, commerce software, sales force automation, web content and experience management application workloads, and even blockchain and containerized applications.

For its proponents, it’s no mystery why.  The mainframe is legendary for processing power, reliability and security.  Two quotes in the Forrester study for Deloitte illustrate:

  • “We do have some data in a public cloud, but not customer information. Any HIPAA information is all maintained on site. Security is huge.” – Director of IT at a healthcare organization
  • “We process billions of transactions a day on our mainframe. Billions! To do that same thing on a distributed platform, we’d need to build another data center in order to put all the equipment there to make it work.” Director of IT at a healthcare organization[v]

And as Forrester had noted previously,

No approach is inexpensive. Staying on mainframes isn’t cheap — and getting off them isn’t either. Some organizations report spending over $100 million to migrate off their mainframe systems. Costs cited include standing up new cloud platforms and services, transitioning operational talent, rearchitecting applications, and integration. [vi]

The keys to ongoing success

We’ll highlight three: hybrid, modernization, and toolset upgrade.

Hybrid

First, as Forrester points out, no modernization initiative takes place in a vacuum.  Most firms addressing the mainframe are also working on a broader workload placement initiative- (whether documented or ad hoc) and are looking at organizational and cultural change by way of DevOps. In fact, Forrester notes

There’s a common misconception that DevOps only applies to newer infrastructure-as-code technologies, but DevOps can apply to mainframes, containers, and everything in between.

And while the mix is changing, for any organization with the scale to warrant a mainframe, there will be elements of on-prem, collocated and cloud-based workload for the foreseeable future.  For manageability and integration, mainframe modernization – application, infrastructure, tooling – needs to fit in the larger context.

Modernization

There is a growing consensus across the industry that “big bang” modernization efforts are risky beyond justification.   Forrester’s analysis notes that…

transition and integration…are hampered by lengthy deployment cycles …This leads to slower time-to-market and worse customer experience.

They advise refactoring, which

… enables them to move parts of workloads to the cloud — the most appropriate ones… yields the best results. Instead of completely rewriting mainframe applications, rework only the portions of workloads that will best take advantage of cloud-native technology.

Tooling and automation

The Forrester/Deloitte study tells us:

… as the tech landscape becomes increasingly complex, companies need to ensure the data moving to and from the mainframe and at rest on it is airtight and secure.

The study lists six current-year priorities – and the percent of respondents labeling it “critical” follows each priority:

  • modernizing the mainframe toolset (35%)
  • increasing mainframe skills and staffing (35%)
  • automating operations (33%)
  • identifying/preventing data breaches (32%)
  • increasing security (29%)
  • and expanding its footprint (27%)

80% of respondents are focused on tooling, 75% on automation and 74% on staffing and skills.   The tooling challenge is complicated by marketplace dynamics: vendors continue to consolidate.  Since the number of new mainframe clients is limited, competition for footprint is fierce, and incentives for significant migration efforts must be evaluated.  These providers don’t always focus on the tactical migration cost, the learning curve forced upon the enterprise, or the amount of commitment required.

So again, while 74% of survey respondents see the mainframe as a long-term strategic platform, most are actively upgrading their environments despite challenges acquiring the right staff and skills.

The resource challenge

Whether for a tooling upgrade, an automation project, or simply to run or improve operations, staffing is a significant challenge.  One prominent analyst recently said to us, “We’ve been telling people for 15 years that the sky is falling.  Well, today, it really is falling!”

The Forrester/Deloitte survey data tell us:

  • 71% are understaffed
  • 59% have knowledge/skill gaps
  • 56% have major talent gaps
  • 54% plan to use outside resources to address.

And the BMC data confirms:

  • 46% list staffing and skills as a top priority
  • 59% use a third-party organization

Experienced mainframers are essential to tooling and automation efforts. We just spent a year migrating after a successful competitive software takeout, which will yield great benefits to our client, but only after a substantial work effort.  The timelines were critical, as the losing software provider is not known for its “understanding” of missed deadlines when negotiating licensing extensions with clients who are leaving them.  As you would expect, our migration scripts and the experience they reflect made a critical difference.

Of equal importance is the simple currency of the platform.  We are helping a Fortune 300 organization and its current managed services provider to overcome years of stagnation created by its previous outsourcer, updating down-level hardware and software from levels which we hadn’t seen in a large shop in many years.

In addition, at GTSG we find that the resource shortages have displaced the once- common disciplines of performance, workload and capacity management in many shops.  This has a cascading effect, as the size of the mainframe footprint remains – and always will remain – a critical driver of the overall cost profile.  In one of our favorite engagements, we justified a client’s faith in us by helping them avoid an expensive engine upgrade which had been pressed on them by their outsourcer. Even though the environment was reasonably well run, our work effort was far less expensive than one might think.

A word about security

Some product vendors have questioned mainframe security in their sales efforts. We find this disappointing.  GTSG doesn’t want any part of a “bandwagon” that criticizes z/OS security.

If implemented correctly, the mainframe has the capability to be a hardened vault.  From the Forrester/Deloitte study:

…the reliability, transaction processing power, and data protection mainframes offer against cyber risk is crucial… pervasive encryption and passports provide even greater compliance and control for data in flight and at rest.

Threat assessments, issues mitigation, monitoring and governance, and vigilance in exploiting new functions/features build another layer of defense in your environment.

In summary:

  • Most mainframe shops expect the platform to be a vital and growing element of a hybrid ecosystem
  • Tooling and automation are essential to the mainframe’s mission
  • Staffing and skills are in increasingly short supply.

Gartner-recognized GTSG helps with:

  • The talent and skills you need
  • The experience and assets you need for a successful migration
  • The independence and objectivity to evaluate your options. GTSG will not receive one dollar of compensation for any product or service we evaluate or recommend.

If you’d like to discuss further, please write us at mainframe@gtsg.com

Thanks.

[i] For a list, see https://www.raywang.org/blog/2021-02/mondays-musings-inside-why-mainframe-alive-and-thriving, retrieved 2 March 2021.

[ii] Forrester commissioned by Deloitte, “Mainframes Are A Critical Part Of Modern IT Strategies,” July 2020

[iii] “Driving Digital Success with the Mainframe: Adapt, Automate, and Secure” 2020 BMC Mainframe Survey Results.

[iv] Forrester for Deloitte.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Forrester, “Tackling The Unsexy Challenge Of Mainframe Modernization,” February 2019