Cynthia Karena July 12, 2012
Mainframe computers in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1995. Photo: Jim Rice
In an era of mobile apps and cloud computing, are mainframes still relevant?
While many mainframe legacy applications from 20 to 30 years ago may be outdated, unsupported, and unable to be integrated with new and emerging technologies, there may be life in those big, powerful computers yet.
Mainframes are seen as robust and reliable, and generally do not break down, says Phillip Sargeant, research VP at Gartner. "The word mainframe seems old, but it's just another server.
"Mainframes are broadening their horizons. One of the major changes is that they now also run workloads today that they didn't five to ten years ago," Sargeant says.
Technological advances in virtualisation and increased processing power have breathed new life into mainframes. This means, for example, they can handle the massive increase in transactions due to mobile devices, says IBM business executive Rolf Stockburger.
IBM has provided the majority of the world's mainframes and Stockburger says about 70 per cent of the world's mission-critical processing systems still runs on them. NASA decommissioned its last mainframe, an IBM Z9, in February.
"The mainframe's strongest assets lie in its reliability, availability, manageability and security, and its ability to process a large amount of transactions in a very short period of time.
"Mainframe applications are built to handle these consumer-driven transaction loads and associated extremely large amounts of data – securely," says Stockburger.
Mainframes will continue to be relevant, says Roy Illsley, principal analyst at Ovum.
"The world will be hybrid (of platforms) and the mainframe will be a part of that. The rise of mobile will change how we work and where we work, but something will still need to capture, analyse and crunch all the data, and that is likely to still be a mainframe," says Illsley.
But not everyone agrees. Dave Stevens, managing director of Brennan IT consultants, says mainframes are too slow for the current pace of innovation.
"Legacy systems stop organisations from being nimble. Every time there is a change in business process, you need to make the legacy system work with that. This slows down the time to market," Stevens says.
A recent Gartner report, says mainframe-based applications can't deliver the agility required to introduce new products to market fast.
Most, it says, are monolithic and difficult to change, citing that project approvals average one to two years, and implementations up to five to seven years.
Institutions that continue to remain on mainframe based applications beyond another five to ten years face risks including growing maintenance costs, skills shortage, and poor integration with other systems, according to the Mainframe Application Liability: Don't Get Left Behind report.
Fading skill set
IT recruiters say increasingly fewer people know what to do with mainframes.
CITI Recruitment and Peoplebank both report low demand for mainframe personnel. Most experienced mainframe workers are being used in large businesses for support, maintenance and minor development, they say.
IBM runs an academic initiative to ensure mainframe skills don't become extinct, but universities are not producing graduates with traditional mainframe skills, says the Gartner report.
It has been many years, since Monash University in Melbourne taught mainframe skills such as COBOL and RPG programming languages or the OS360 operating system, says Professor David Abramson at the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University.
Instead, he says universities focus on teaching generic IT skills.
"We expect our graduates to be able to move from one current technology to another. Given the pace of change in technology, this is really the only sane way to proceed."