The modern mainframe – a platform for the digital age?

By Derek Britton | 9 July 2018

When we take money out of an ATM, open a new bank account, get a new car insurance quote online, or simply check our account balance on a mobile device, a mainframe somewhere is handling the request. Mainframes are the bedrock of the financial services industry. According to a study by BMC, over two-thirds of the mainframe community are now increasing their capacity to support modern demands. Recent announcements of new mainframe releases by IBM have further spiked that demand.

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

But these trusted machines are not chosen simply because they are reliable or have always been there. Today’s digital economy demands a much more dynamic IT to support the financial sector.  According to a Micro Focus customer survey, plans are in place to maintain or modernise 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.

Relying upon, and renewing, what works

Studies suggest that modernising existing core systems and incrementally improving or adding capabilities to them is a statistically lower risk option compared with ripping the system out and starting all over again. Typically, this means building out from existing mainframe-based IT systems, usually based on the business computing language, COBOL.

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. Plus, reusing IT applications to support a digital strategy both reduces the effort involved (what is needed is already in place) and can require a much more modest budget.

Making modernisation work

But what does it mean to modernize? What are the demands of the digital age and can the mainframe support the necessary innovations needed in the financial services sector?

Modernisation 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. Through newer technologies such as Eclipse integration, managed code support, web services and REST/JSON support, application innovation has a variety of options. In today’s mainframe world, application modernisation is at a developer’s fingertips.

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 where they are now, or perhaps in a virtualised environment – such as the Cloud – that flexibility is available today. With nearly a third of all mainframe sites investing in additional capacity because of the cloud, that coexistence is becoming hugely popular, and with Cloud adoption almost ubiquitous, that trend is set to continue.

Rapid change is the digital mantra, and IT shops must be flexible, or agile, in their methods. The concept of DevOps is being adopted by the mainframe world - Arcati recently reported that two-thirds of the mainframe world is utilising DevOps. Mainframe organizations must, and can, support more rapid delivery cycles than ever before.

Not a week goes by, it seems, without news of another high profile IT security breach. And in a highly-regulated, risk-averse financial services industry, security breaches are bad news. IBM’s recent investments in their new flagship mainframe product, the z14, further extended the encryption technology available in the box. Additional software innovations from the mainframe vendor community provide a far greater level of security through multi-factor authentication for mainframe systems.

Modernisation 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.

Become a bobsguide member to access the following

1. Unrestricted access to bobsguide
2. Send a proposal request
3. Insights delivered daily to your inbox
4. Career development