The role of the mainframe in digital transformation [Q&A]


When many enterprises think of mainframes, they think of reliable, workhorse technology and legacy applications.

Mobile, windows-based applications are rarely top of mind. However, mainframes still power much of today's digital economy, from mobile banking to online ticket reservations, and still have a place in the enterprise IT stack.


We spoke to Steve Hassett, chief operating officer at mainframe integration specialist GT Software, to find out why some enterprises incorrectly assume mainframes are yesterday's technology and why, for many, mainframe integration is so hard. We also asked Steve about how progressive organizations are leveraging their mainframe investment to unlock new levels of application performance and responsiveness.

BN: First of all, how can mainframes aid in achieving digital transformation?

SH: In today's economy, digital transformation is achieved through the interconnectivity of technology. More enterprises are taking their operations off internal mainframe structures in favor of the cloud, and there’s an increasing concern over data safety and protection.

Mainframes provide a myriad of opportunities to connect with other tools and rapidly deliver developed applications that power mobility and modern web-based processes. They allow for efficient cognitive computing implementation by building applications on top of an established system of record. They also provide strong stability, adapting from their existing roles as the backbone of many enterprises. Mainframes deserve to be viewed as a trusted foundation for digital innovation. The key is to integrate mainframe power and security with today’s leading-edge development platforms to achieve true digital transformation.

BN: How hard is it to integrate mainframes?

SH: Pretty hard. Some applications were originally written for punch cards with data formats that are not easily read with something like a SQL query, and developed in languages like COBOL, assembler and PL/1. But these workhorse applications process $3 trillion worth of transactions per day. There are some 220 billion lines of COBOL in production today and that number is growing not shrinking.

For those worried that integrating the mainframe is a tedious and technical process, it can be, but there’s good news. Today's leading integration solutions use a simple drag and drop process. This means no need for manual coding, a fear that deters many. Integration eliminates costly application re-writes or replacement. In fact, these new solutions allow you to externalize new business logic to improve time to market and speed innovation, again, without touching the old code.

BN: What exactly do these new integration solutions do?

SH: It's now easier than ever to break down silos within the mainframe environment and integrate it with newer systems by embracing the mainframe and using APIs. IDC coined the term 'connected mainframe,' which refers to the integration of the existing technology with data center infrastructure and IT processes opening up the mainframe platform to the rest of the world. APIs are driving new ways to use data as well as potential revenue from third parties, external developers, vendors and partners who can license and incorporate them into new solutions. Mainframe-connected APIs are lucrative in the booming API economy, and make accessing the abundance of information stored within the mainframe easier than ever before.

BN: Turning to the talent pool, how can enterprises combat the skills gap needed to exploit mainframes?

SH: Today's programmers are learning more modern languages, which is one of the biggest challenges for companies still relying on legacy systems. Our recent survey identified lack of skilled resources as the major obstacle to integration and modernization. Our tools directly address this problem by improving productivity of the mainframe by a factor of five. An API that would have taken 40 hours can be built in less than a day.

Modernizing and connecting the mainframe solves this problem by closing the skills gap and enabling your mainframe for mobile and web by developing APIs to access legacy data and applications. This means narrowing skill sets so some can focus on creating APIs while other employees with mobile and web development skills can focus on using those strengths.

BN: So, what is the main thing you want people to understand about mainframes?

SH: According to our recent survey, the predominant method of integration, by far, is writing code. I want IT professionals to know that coding their way out or throwing bodies at a problem is the least efficient way to address your integration challenges. Mainframes are not just capable of rapid digital innovation for companies; they're an integral part of the innovation process. While lots of technology can quickly become outdated, mainframes are not subject to the rapid cycle of change many consumer electronics go through. They have staying power for a reason: if you’re looking for reliability and unparalleled power when developing applications, look no further than your current technology infrastructure. Once you've made the decision to leverage this power, the process of integration can be eased with the rights tools. Integration does not have to be done the hard way.

Photo Credit: Timofeev Vladimir/Shutterstock

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