For decades pundits and competitors have been writing off the mainframe, AKA Big Iron, and while its market share has been eroded by newer platforms — as befits an industry where ‘what have you done for me lately’ is right up there with ‘Moore’s Law’ as Revealed Truth — it’s still alive and kicking: 55% of enterprise apps need the mainframe; 70% of enterprise transactions touch a mainframe; and, 70-80% of the world’s corporate data resides on a mainframe. However at least some are arguing that despite its age — now in its ‘50s — the venerable platform that IBM powered to success is finding new life with a couple of the current industry darlings, Digital Transformation and DevOps.
First, some industry factoids: the latest quarterly server data (3Q16) showed a drop in shipments (-2.6%) and revenues (-5.8%) year over year, with IBM plummeting -33% (to $889 million). However the datacenter systems market is expected to grow 2.6% this year, to $176 billion, which should benefit mainframe sales.
According to many, the future does look brighter for the mainframe. When not pointing out HPE’s perceived faults, analyst Rob Enderle (and former IBMer) has covered Big Blue extensively and recently (October) noted that developments like cloud, analytics, Linux and Blockchain are offering new optimism for the embattled platform. ‘Suddenly, mainframes are not only not obsolete, they are cutting edge, go figure. Yep the mainframe is back, with a vengeance.’
Reporting on IBM’s annual year-end recap for the Systems group, analyst Joe Clabby, Clabby Analytics, noted that the mainframe’s future is positive. Big Blue was emphasizing Blockchain and HSBN (the company’s “high security business network”). ‘Blockchain serves as the basis for creating a new way to perform transaction processing, one that features a secure “open ledger” that is shared amongst all concerned parties during the transaction. This new approach streamlines transaction and business processes and enables significantly greater security that traditional approaches.’ IBM claims that it is making solid headway with this offering in the securities, trade, finance, syndicated loans, supply chain, retail banking, public records and digital property management industries.
‘For over 20 years, ever since industry pundits in the mid-1990s forecast the demise of the IBM mainframe, Clabby Analytics has taken the position that there is no other architecture better suited for processing secure transactions (and now in-transaction analytics workloads) than IBM’s z System.
‘Given this position, we see IBM’s new LinuxONE mainframe servers as ideally positioned to support a projected major market move toward Hyperledger and Blockchain transaction processing over the coming years. This movement should greatly escalate the sale of mainframe servers. Long live the mainframe!’
Released this week, the latest annual State of the Mainframe survey from Syncsort, which promotes itself as a global leader in Big Iron to Big Data solutions, identified four trends that underscore the rising importance of mainframe data as a critical component of enterprise-wide strategies for Big Data analytics:
-60% of respondents indicated that they plan to move mainframe data off-platform for analytics;
-66% ranked the ability to do big data analytics for operations and/or security across the entire enterprise as important;
-62% don’t feel they are able to effectively track data in motion; and,
-48.6% indicate it is desirable for their organization to have access to log, SMF or other data on the mainframe for correlation with distributed data in Big Data and analytics platforms (Splunk, Hadoop, etc.).
The survey also confirmed the mainframe’s continuing role as the predominant platform for performing large-scale transaction processing on mission-critical applications. “Companies still rely on the mainframe to process their most important transactional data, but we’re seeing an increased focus on integrating this data within Big Data analytics platforms to provide a complete enterprise-wide view of data for intelligence on business-critical operations, security breaches and compliance audits,” said David Hodgson, General Manager of Syncsort’s Mainframe business.
One of the companies pushing the mainframe is Compuware, which started 2017 off with an acquisition, MVS Solutions, and a new solution, Topaz for Total Test, that “de-legacies” billions of lines of COBOL code with automated, agile Java-like unit testing. “By eliminating a long-standing constraint to COBOL agility, Compuware provides enterprise IT the ability to deliver more digital capabilities to the business at greater speed and with less risk,” said Rich Ptak of IT analyst firm Ptak Associates, in a prepared statement.
In December it announced the results of a survey showing that lack of agility in mainframe application delivery continued to ‘stifle’ enterprise innovation and speed to market. The majority of respondents (90%) reported challenges in developing and delivering applications that involve the mainframe, including unacceptably slow delivery, expensive workarounds, development teams saddled with changing priorities and compliance and security risks.
“Enterprises that mistakenly allow their mainframe environments to languish in outdated processes and archaic tools will suffer the consequences of being too slow—which includes customer defection and, ultimately extinction,” said Compuware CEO Chris O’Malley, “That’s why smart enterprise CEO are investing in mainframe modernization that transforms their systems of record from inhibitors of digital success to catalysts of competitive advantage.”
Another ISV pushing the mainframe platform (and DT/DevOps), CA Technologies, just predicted that it will become even more connected in the enterprise. Two weeks ago CA’s Ashok Reddy, General Manager of Mainframe, offered three predictions and a surprise for the mainframe:
-Prediction #1: Mainframe DevOps will evolve to Mainframe DevSecOps; the unification of development, security and operations is better known as DevOpsSec, SecDevOps or DevSecOps, and involves designing security into every level of the software development and delivery process;
-Prediction #2: Mainframe as a service or mainframe cloud, which provides compute, storage and DevOps capabilities as self service, goes mainstream, allowing users to either implement these in their own data center or leverage outsourcing providers to move the capex and expense management off the books while still reaping the benefits of mainframe’s performance and scale;
-Prediction #3: Mainframe becomes the hub of systems of intelligence with algorithm based intelligent automation, which will result in no finger-pointing and easier skills triage inside the data center; and,
-Surprise prediction: Blockchain will cause a resurgence of interest in growing and innovating on the mainframe, as it’s promise of accuracy and trust will disrupt industries well beyond finance, insurance and real estate.
Despite the above, the mainframe’s future is anything but assured. IBM has been struggling and rumors continue to surface that it’s Big Iron business is up for sale.
2017 will see an inflexion point when legacy mainframes cease being an asset and become a liability, according to TmaxSoft, which focuses on infrastructure and data modernization. The company believes ‘that legacy mainframes can act as a brake on enterprise innovation, rendering organizations less able to compete in the digital age.’ “If they (organizations stuck on legacy mainframes) are to avoid experiencing their own ‘Kodak moment’ and fend off the competition, these organizations will need to abandon their legacy mainframes – and to do so quickly,” said CEO Joshua Yulish.
If we’ve learned anything about life and the IT industry, it’s nothing is certain but change,. No doubt that will continue to cloud the mainframe’s future.
Disclosure: I’m still an IBM shareholder and remain convinced that mainframes will continue to be viable for the foreseeable future (or at least until IBM sells off its z business).