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It’s Time to Finally Retire Your Mainframe, Here’s Why

Mainframes are the tried-and-true, reliable remnants of an enterprise computing era now past. In fact, they served us so well they’re still around—with some companies relying on these same systems for the past 20 to 30 years. And while mainframes have long provided us with a sense of reliability, the benefits of more modern cloud approaches have us asking ourselves once again, “Is it finally time to move on from the mainframe?” 

Reasons to Retire Your Mainframe 

As enterprises move to the cloud and rethink their entire application portfolio strategy, often one of the most archaic and costly systems up for future consideration is the mainframe. While talk of retiring the mainframe has been happening for a while, today there seems to be a promising new opportunity to finally reap the benefits of more modern technologies.  

Below are some of the most common benefits I see from organizations that forego their mainframes in favor of cloud-enabled options. 

Greater Flexibility 

Problems with the mainframe are numerous. First, mainframe systems are often core to business operations and in turn, many downstream applications are dependent on mainframe systems for their own functionality. As the evolving needs of downstream systems shift, these downstream changes often require upstream enhancements made to the mainframe system. The collective entirety of the needed updates on the mainframe over any period of time is a faucet that, in today’s digital world, never slows nor turns off. 

Mainframes have become the long pole in the tent when it comes to rolling out new functionality across organizations. This reliance, combined with the fact that mainframes are difficult to update and maintain, results in a huge uphill climb when it comes to keeping dependent enterprise apps and digital experiences fresh. 

Increased Speed  

System enhancements made to the mainframe are both slow and tedious.  With dated release processes, a lack of automated regression tests, and the risk criticality of keeping these systems issue free, any mainframe update is a lengthy and laborious one. Today the mainframe has become the governor for limiting just how fast most companies can move in the modern age. 

As businesses continue to move faster, there’s an inflection point where outdated technologies become a hindrance to speed and innovation. The flexibility of easier and more frequent application updates allows organizations to be more agile in their approach to the digital services and solutions they’re providing to customers. 

Cost Savings 

Mainframes are often one of the top expenses for IT budgets. Costs such as MIPS-based pricing and adjacent licenses and fees are among the main drivers of high operating costs. Additionally, because mainframe capacity planning is an inexact science, over-provisioning typically occurs in contrast to the bursting and horizontal scaling models made popular by the cloud. 

Cloud-native applications and cloud infrastructure cost flexibilities provide a scalable and attractive alternative to the ever-growing costs of mainframe maintenance. 

Subject Matter Expertise 

If you’re doing the math at home, only the youngest members of the IT workforce at the time when the mainframe was installed are still in the active workforce today. Many of the engineers who pioneered initial mainframe efforts inside large organizations have long since retired. COBOL, CICS, and DB2 aren’t technologies you see in university curriculum or developer boot camps these days and the next generation of mainframe developers is non-existent and therefore unavailable to step into the world of enterprise mainframe development. In contrast, modern-day Java and Spring are the most popular server-side tools and desired skills on the planet and that’s where today’s developers are flocking. 

Mainframe to Cloud Approaches 

As organizations begin to consider leaving the mainframe behind, there are a few paths enterprises can take. The path you choose is based on your goals in relation to the four benefit categories. 

If your organization primarily values cost savings, you may take more of a “lift and shift” emulation approach by migrating the structure of your mainframe into a cloud environment where a mainframe emulator is in place. Benefits of this approach include a transition off the mainframe and fewer application code changes. But even a simple porting exercise often comes with its own set of challenges, and rarely would we recommend emulation as a primary approach. 

If your organization’s goals include reducing costs and appealing to newer developers without making major changes to the application, you’re likely to look into some of the code translators that have become popular as of late. Code translators take mainframe COBOL code and use unique rules engines to map 30-year-old COBOL code to Java. One of our favorite players in this space, Heirloom Computing, has a tool that will convert the green screens over into HTML as well. The cost of this option is not insignificant, but it eliminates the higher costs of proprietary landlock of the mainframe and its costs. Organizations appreciate the transition to an open-source application codebase that can be flexibly deployed in numerous different fashions and services in the cloud. 

For organizations who simply want it all, most will go with a more “blank slate” approach, essentially building a new house next to the old house. The existing architecture will be divided into smaller composable components and services to allow for easier enhancements and updates. Built using cloud-native architectures, these are systems that can turn on a dime when needed. Organizations that take this approach tend to be forward-thinking, seeing their investment in new technology as a market differentiator for decades to come.   

The Time to Shift is Now 

Mainframes are still so prominent today because many organizations are extremely wary of making the leap away from reliable pieces of their IT strategy that in many cases have been running for more than 20 years. The mainframe’s ability to hang around has inevitably put it at the center of delivering mission-critical pieces of functionality that support the heartbeat of business operations today. The decision to migrate off is one that isn’t ever made lightly. However, recent changes in technology provide a compelling and attractive set of options that have organizations asking, “what if” more loudly than they have in the past. 

If your business has been considering moving away from the mainframe and into the cloud, perhaps now is the time. For more insights into how organizations can shift into a more cost-effective solution that enables faster speeds and greater flexibility, reach out to our team and tell us about your business needs. 

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