Mainframes Forever

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2011-06-14

See also our slideshow, Mainframe Expertise In Demand.

During the last few years, IT executives have found themselves sorting through a dizzying array of choices about technologies, systems and tools. Yet, in an environment increasingly ruled by the low cost and simplicity of distributed servers, there’s a growing recognition that mainframes definitely aren’t ready for the scrap heap.

“Mainframes continue to play an important role in business and IT,” observes Mark White, principal and CTO for Deloitte Consulting.

In fact, many traditional users of mainframes—financial services firms, transportation providers, e-commerce companies, government agencies and others with massive databases—continue to use these computers to handle a variety of tasks. Mainframes are evolving, and enterprises are relying on them for a wider range of IT requirements, including running virtualized machines, supporting private clouds and running a mix of operating systems, including Linux.

According to Adam Burden, global lead for application modernization at Accenture, recent advances in architecture enable organizations to tackle tasks on these computers that they couldn’t have imagined only a few years ago. “Organizations that have made a commitment to this computing platform are finding that it is breathing new life into their business,” he says. Mainframes remain especially valuable for organizations that require high availability and bulletproof disaster recovery.

Burden says that in today’s business environment, three primary groups rely on mainframes. The first group includes organizations that currently depend heavily on enterprise software suites such as ERP or CRM. Many of these organizations are gradually migrating off mainframes and onto Unix or Windows architectures. “They are essentially looking to retire the hardware,” he says.

The second group includes enterprises that continue to use mainframes because they’ve made a huge financial and labor investment in them. Many of these companies’ business applications run on big iron, and they are looking to extend their applications’ useful life by tying them into emerging technologies in order to tap into new uses, including mobile commerce and private clouds.

The third category encompasses organizations that continue to invest in mainframes and rely on them as a mainstay of their computing environment. Many of these users, Burden says, are adopting new systems and tapping into their power for both traditional uses and new channels—often involving IBM’s Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) processors with Linux and Java subsystems.

“It’s an incredibly cost-efficient use of mainframe computing,” Burden notes. “They’re able to support rapidly growing transaction processing needs from new channels without taxing their core business systems.”

What’s more, mainframe users can substantially reduce site-licensing costs and save on cooling and energy expenses. Some experts also believe that mainframes provide a more secure operating environment than distributed servers.

Powering Results

It’s no surprise, then, that many Fortune 1000 organizations continue to rely on mainframes as a foundation for an IT strategy. “A lot of businesses look at their computing environment and realize that a mainframe provides remarkable power, a very mature and stable platform, and a single hardware provider to deal with,” Deloitte’s White explains.

“It remains an appealing concept.”

In fact, because a mainframe can run hundreds of virtualized machines or logical partitions, it provides a high level of flexibility and agility. Organizations that handle huge back-end processing loads benefit from the technology. So do commerce providers that must scale quickly to meet fluctuating demands: They can use a mainframe as a transactional hub that interacts with database analytics or a mobile computing environment.

Mainframes also allow enterprises to provision and deprovision test environments rapidly. In some instances, these processes can take place in hours rather than weeks or months. Some enterprises find mainframes appealing because they provide an antidote for server sprawl.

Finally, mainframes excel at failover, load balancing and disaster recovery. In addition, strong virtualization features make mainframes ideal for private clouds. Says White: “Any organization that has a mainframe and is looking into a private cloud should consider connecting the two.”

White notes that while mainframe sales have trended downward in recent years, the number of mips a typical machine handles has spiked. IBM, Hitachi and NCR are continuing to introduce new features and more-advanced capabilities, including microprocessors that are optimized for a wider array of computing tasks. As a result, he says, the anti-mainframe sentiment of the late 1990s and early 2000s has largely subsided.

The challenge now, for many enterprises, is finding the talent to handle development and programming tasks on mainframes. In an era of PC-based servers, social networking and Web 2.0, interest in programming for mainframes is waning, some experts warn.

Nevertheless, predictions about the demise of mainframes are largely exaggerated. “They’re still the best choice for many organizations,” Accenture's Burden concludes.