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Mainframe technology is alive, well and very much relevant in 2019.
As mainframe systems continue playing an important role in many organizations' IT environments, vendors have heeded the call for modern mainframe offerings that incorporate machine learning, automation, enhanced security and analytics capabilities. As a result, this updated mainframe technology has opened new opportunities for channel partners. BMC Software, Dell EMC, Fujitsu, Hitachi Data Systems and IBM are some of the key players in the mainframe market, according to Research and Markets' "Global Mainframes Market" report.
A 2018 study by Forrester Consulting and Compuware found that 57% of U.S. and European enterprises with a mainframe of any age currently run more than half of their business-critical applications on the platform. Forrester Consulting and Compuware expect that number to rise to 64% this year. The study also found that 72% of customer-facing applications, including websites and web-based applications, are completely or very reliant on mainframe processing.
IT services firm DXC Technology, based in Herndon, Va., sees the mainframe as a viable environment for modernization, said Chris Flaesch, general manager of global hosting solutions.
"The mainframe is certainly viable, and the folks in the mainframe space and customers with substantial investments in the mainframe space own a pretty big hammer, so it's to their advantage to find nails," Flaesch said.
As a service provider, he added, "we have the pleasure of getting the harder problems: customers outsourcing and asking us to help them with their more difficult environments. And the mainframe often plays into that."
Why mainframe technology still has a future
Mainframe technology provider BMC also believes the technology has a bright future. BMC's 2018 mainframe survey, which polled 1,100 executives and IT technical professionals, found that 92% respondents predicted long-term viability of their mainframe systems -- the third consecutive year this percentage has increased.
"Most organizations have a set of large, complex applications tied together that, frankly, the effort involved to simply rewrite so you can run it and operate it in a cloud-only platform is just very cost prohibitive, and extremely risky," said John McKenny, vice president of strategy for ZSolutions, at BMC, headquartered in Houston.
BMC does not have many customers moving mainframe workloads to the cloud, because they don't see the long-term cost benefits, he said. When customers evaluate the cost of designing, architecting and migrating that componentry of their architecture, "there's just not an economic benefit that holds water," McKenny said.
Flaesch concurred that the often-held notion that cloud is cheaper is not always true. "We have plenty of evidence of folks moving workloads back from cloud," he said.
Chris Flaeschgeneral manager of global hosting solutions, DXC Technology
From a channel partner's perspective, there are different aspects of the mainframe market to consider: the systems software, the application software, the staffing elements, the hardware and the hosting, all of which are "feeling different kinds of pressures," Flaesch said.
According to DXC, the greatest opportunity for partners is in client environments that have a substantial set of mainframe workloads and applications that need to be kept up to date. For example, Flaesch said DXC has a transportation customer that runs big demand forecasting and custom logistics applications. "So when it started … running its big, next-generation maintenance and IoT-driven maintenance applications, doing that on a mainframe was a natural thing for them to do," he said.
Flaesch believes that the general consensus is that mainframe technology is still the most cost-effective approach for running a large set of workloads that need to be aggregated. "[Mainframe systems] will be the most reliable and cost-effective, and it will give you the best service levels of any environment you can have, hands down," he said.
The caveats to that would be when you don't know how many workloads you're going to be running, how fast they need to ramp up, and when IT is not certain about the type of applications it needs to develop and how portable they need to be, he added.
"Uncertainty in those areas will lead you, from a risk-mitigation perspective, to take a different approach -- whether hyper-converged [infrastructure], where you can add on incrementally or abandon without a multiyear commitment, or cloud month to month," Flaesch noted. "But you give up certain things with SLAs [service-level agreements] and performance commitments."
Addressing the aging IT workforce
One of the interesting findings of BMC's research was that 63% of respondents were under the age of 50, up from 53% in 2017. At the same time, he said it is important to modernize the mainframe because of the aging workforce.
The Compuware survey found that enterprises have lost 23% of their skilled mainframe workers in the past five years, and that 63% of those positions have gone unfilled. As experienced mainframe professionals retire, there is an opportunity for partners to help fill the skills gap while the next generation is training and getting up to speed on the technology.
"Many clients have infrastructure teams where the average age is well north of 50 years old, and [the clients are] busy transforming their organizations. What better time to help them address that [skills gap], while modernizing and having more efficient operations,'' Flaesch said.
Yet, the issue of the continued viability of mainframes works both ways. With many organizations focused on digitally transforming themselves and moving applications to the cloud, not everyone is bullish on mainframes. Approximately 20% of DXC's customers have committed to moving off the mainframe as the applications they are running have been modernized and offloaded to third parties, Flaesch said. Of the other 80%, probably half are "committed strategically to the mainframe but aren't adding to it."
A lack of skills is a key reason why these organizations aren't embracing mainframe technology. Much of DXC's customer base is looking to minimize its exposure to the mainframe because they can't find IT staff familiar with it, Flaesch said.
Modern mainframe features
BMC announced its automated mainframe intelligence (AMI) strategy in October 2018, aimed at helping clients evolve to a self-managing mainframe environment, better protect their systems and their data for compliance, and to mitigate the risk of security breaches, McKenny said.
Another area of focus for the vendor was ensuring that organizations can keep all the components of their infrastructure residing on the mainframe, including databases, systems, middleware and storage devices, performing at an optimized level, he said.
BMC has partners already offering AMI, McKenny said. "What they all have in common is they all want a high degree of automation because that provides their clients with a competitive advantage." AMI's enhanced mainframe security provides a good opportunity for partners as well, he added.
The AMI platform is BMC's bid to keep the mainframe relevant in the face of digital transformations. Mainframes can handle "incredible transaction volumes," McKenny observed. "The total number of transactions run in a day on the world's mainframes is 10 times higher than the number of Google searches that occur in a day."
DXC's mainframe services and environment is growing and continuing to improve, Flaesch said. While there is diversity of opinion about the future of mainframe technology, nobody is going hungry continuing to work in the market, he said. "Many have been modernized for big-demand forecast models," as well as for machine learning and AI types of requirements, so organizations' investments are not in vain, he added.
"There's an old joke that the mainframe is the fastest growing dying business on the planet,'' he said. "Every time its obituary is written, it continues to do well."