IDC: The Mainframe's Central Role in Enterprise 'Digital Transformations'

The mainframe is at an inflection point from which it will either continue as a revenue-supporting machine or emerge as a revenue-generating platform that plays an increasingly central role in enterprise digital transformations (DX). That's the conclusion of a new IDC white paper, published this week, which looks at the evolution of what the analyst firm has dubbed "the connected mainframe."

In the report ("The Business Value of the Connected Mainframe for Digital Transformation"), IDC analysts Peter Rutten and Matthew Marden synthesize interviews with executives at nine organizations known to run "significant mainframe operations" to arrive at an understanding of how and to what extent these companies are leveraging the mainframe to support their DX initiatives, as well as the bottom-line value of these efforts.

The modernization and integration of the mainframe into an organization's connected ecosystem, internally and externall -- which is the definition of "connected mainframe" -- leads to innovations that drive revenue growth and improve operational efficiency, the paper's authors concluded.

"IDC believes that the mainframe has a central role in digital transformation; businesses that do not take advantage of its broad range of capabilities are giving up value and, potentially, competitive advantage," they wrote.

"Modernizing on the mainframe" is about "creating a platform that is integration-ready within the datacenter and with the outside world," the authors explained. Many of the executives interviewed reported using Web services and service-oriented architectures to allow the mainframe to communicate with other parts of the infrastructure and to deliver data and functionality within the mainframe to other applications. The early adopters they interviewed often turned to Linux on the mainframe to reduce costs. Use of the cloud to enable "mainframe-as-a-service" is also key. So is Java.

"An important aspect of modernizing on the mainframe is the use of Java," the analysts found, "which most organizations in the study say they support — some aggressively with Java on Linux, while others in a limited fashion running Java inside Customer Information Control System (CICS)."

A truly modernized mainframe must also be connected with the rest of the datacenter infrastructure and IT processes, the analysts explained, and it must be open to the outside world. Exposing services and capabilities on the mainframe to mobile apps was a common strategy among the study participants. The use of internal and external APIs on the mainframe was widespread. DevOps and Agile on the mainframe were also seen among study participants, as were early examples of hybrid cloud strategies.

The independently researched white paper was sponsored by IBM and CA technologies, with the aim of getting the word out about the continuing value of the mainframe, and making it "part of the customers' innovation agenda," said Mike Perera, VP of the z Systems Software team at IBM.

"We have an awful lot of anecdotal data about what companies are doing around the modernization of the mainframe," Perera told ADTmag, "but we didn't have independent confirmation of what we've been hearing from our customers by an industry analyst doing primary research."

This evolution of the mainframe is inhibited primarily by slow-to-change "cultural notions about the platform," the paper's authors found. "Many of the participants [in the study] expressed frustration with outdated perceptions in the organization that are not considering future potential," they wrote.

"In many cases, it's not just the mainframe and the physical technology that's unconnected," Perera said. "It's the people. You find these silos inside companies, and what has become an us-versus-them situation, the mainframers versus everybody else."

"When we talk to clients, we find that those who are actually working with the mainframe understand its importance and how it continues to power their digital transformations," said Ashok Reddy, GM of CA Technologies' Mainframe and Workload Automation group. "But others within the company who may not have a mainframe background often have this perception issue, especially the newer folks."

But there appears to be what the analysts characterized as "a growing realization that innovation on mainframe is feasible," at least among the study participants. They reported that, by adopting Java, internal APIs, or Linux, they could "deliver innovation at a pace comparable to the rest of the IT organization."

Among the analysts' recommendations for those embarking on a connected mainframe initiative: embrace modern application development using open-source runtime frameworks, microservices, and popular languages. Although they should figure into a best practice for a connected mainframe, adoption of these tools and techniques is still nascent. A few organizations are starting to adopt Eclipse-based IDEs for "developers, who don't even know that the mainframe is there," the analysts write, "but many continue to develop on COBOL, citing skills and culture."

"When we hire new people they sometimes think mainframe means COBOL and Assembler," Reddy said. "They don't realize that mainframe supports Java, not only on Linux and the z System, but on the core platform. Java is completely optimized and allows you to leverage skills of people coming right out of college. And it supports all the latest technologies. Including open source and all the latest and greatest things."

"It's not surprising that Java showed up in this white paper," Perera added. "We've been investing a tremendous amount in the platform around Java. One of our best-kept secrets is that [IBM z System] is the most performant Java platform in the world today."

The value of the connected mainframe to the enterprise is substantial and multilayered, the IDC analysts concluded. Adopters are generating an average of almost $200 million in additional revenue per year while improving business and IT staff productivity and cutting operational costs, they found8. More than half of that additional revenue results from business productivity gains, realized from higher transaction volumes, new services, and/or business expansion, the analysts said.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].