The IBM z14 was unveiled in 2017 to much fanfare, and the recent market results suggest a resurgence in the popularity of big iron. It seems many are turning once again to the faithful IBM mainframe to provide the answer. According to BMC, over two-thirds of the mainframe community are now increasing their capacity to support modern demands.

There’s no doubting the performance, resilience and scale that the mainframe environment provides. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the world’s largest organisations across a variety of sectors use IBM mainframes.

These organisations are not static – they are ever-changing. As a result, their mission-critical mainframe applications can’t stand still. According to a Micro Focus customer survey, plans are in place to maintain or modernize 84% of mainframe applications in the near future. Moreover, Gartner recently asserted that 90% of all business applications - many mainframe-based - will still exist in five years.

Starting from a position of strength

IBM z14 mainframe
IBM z14 mainframe – IBM

So, is there a link between smart modernization and relying on working mainframe applications? It goes without saying that successful modernization projects are expected to work – however, many fail. Whether it be the US tax online system or a new customer application for one of the UK’s leading banks, the pitfalls of hasty IT decisions and implementations never stray far from the headlines. modernization projects in IT are therefore often served with a healthy dose of paranoia.

Studies suggest that modernizing existing core systems and incrementally improving or adding capabilities to them is a statistically lower risk option. Typically, this means building out from existing mainframe-based COBOL systems.

The benefit of building upon what’s already there is that the value the system already provides - often a decades-old heritage of functionality - is protected and maintained for the future. And in some cases this heritage works to an organisation’s advantage – differentiating them from competitors.

Finally, reusing IT applications in a future strategy not only shortens the effort involved, since much of the required system already works, but it also has a positive impact on the required budget.

Making modernization work

The term ‘modernize’ means different things to different people. Variance within the IT industry, as well as variations of what is required to change, dictates that the concept of mainframe modernization needs to be flexible enough to cope with a spectrum of needs. And many mainframers are finding that it seems to be ready now, regardless of the request. Here are just some examples of how mainframe technology is supporting modern demands:

Supporting application innovation – modernization often focuses on the application itself. Typically, the emphasis falls on updating or extending business functionality through a fresh user experience or capability. This can also include leveraging mainframe applications alongside web service based interfaces, or other composite application architectures.

The underlying COBOL systems can behave as any other language alongside modern development practices. Through Eclipse integration, managed code support, web services and REST/JSON support a number of processes are possible. These include building and consuming COBOL-based web services, creating new UIs on the traditional COBOL back-ends and having composite COBOL and Java apps. Therefore, in today’s mainframe world, application modernization is at a developer’s fingertips.

At the heart of a connected infrastructure – IDC’s “connected mainframe” puts big iron at the heart of organisational IT, not outside it. Whether accessing it from a range of new devices or interfaces, the facility and, indeed, security exists. Whether mainframe applications must execute in a virtualised environment – such as Z-based, a multi-cloud LinuxOne, AWS, Azure – or another hybrid environment, core mainframe systems have the flexibility to do so today. With 31.5% of mainframes investing in additional capacity because of the cloud, connectivity between the two is becoming more mainstream in enterprise IT.

Nimble and adaptable - To embrace change and adapt regardless of the circumstances, IT shops must be open and agile in their methods. DevOps is as viable approach to the mainframe as anywhere. To illustrate this, Arcati recently reported that two-thirds of the mainframe world is utilising DevOps, which explains why it is such a popular track at the SHARE mainframe community gatherings.

For the modern generation - Technology only does what it’s told, so the right mainframe-ready workforce is essential. While the shortage of IT skills remains a strategic challenge, mainframe vendors have long advocated for an approach that unifies disparate IT skills. This, in turn, enables millennials to acquire technical abilities across the entire IT estate, including the mainframe.

Supporting a secure future - IBM’s recent investments in z14 introduced encryption technology to the box. Additional software innovations from the mainframe vendor community provide a far greater level of security through multi-factor authentication for mainframe systems.

modernization of a mainframe-based IT system is not only the quickest route to success, but also delivers a variety of viable options irrespective of the drivers for change. It is therefore little wonder the mainframe community continues to rely on one of the most trusted components of the IT estate.

Derek Britton is director of AMC strategy at Micro Focus