By Louis Heymans

As the global economy struggles to restart its engine after the Covid-19 outbreak, many businesses are rethinking how to adapt to the new reality. Some of them collapsed during the pandemic, others learned tough lessons, while some of them emerged stronger.

For many organizations still using mainframes, the crisis revealed the vulnerability of their core business applications and demonstrated the urgent need for modernization. And as they hesitate to accelerate their digital transformation, they expose themselves to a greater risk: relying on a business-as-usual model with no possibility to adapt and innovate, in an economic reality that is now essentially different than the one we were living in just a few months ago.

Traditional mainframe modernization drivers

About twenty years ago, mainframe migrations used to be mainly motivated by cost savings. Organizations wanted to either migrate applications supported by very expensive software, such as Adabas Natural, to COBOL, often staying on the mainframe; or they wanted to completely replace the mainframe system with cheaper X86 systems supported by MS Windows or Unix and later Linux Operating systems.

The access to talent is another factor that strongly influenced the decision to move away from the mainframe. Old programming languages such as COBOL, Natural, PL1, EGL, ADS, or Assembler gradually disappeared from universities’ curriculum, which led to a skills crisis once the baby boomers had started to retire.

Less than 10 years ago, a completely new driver entered the arena. Brand new companies emerged in many sectors where previously established companies dominated the market.

New players, new migration drivers

Today, newcomers are able to make full use of the new technologies, tools and methods that became available to build new applications which respond to the market demands. Exciting opportunities such as cloud, Agile development, DevOps, CI/CD (Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment) allow to shorten the time to market.

Established companies also have these possibilities, but they are hindered by mainframe systems that form the basis of their mission-critical applications since decades. This happens because many legacy systems were designed for vertical scaling – bigger, more powerful machines when needed – and consequently most mission-critical workloads are built to run on mainframes. They have been successfully delivering outstanding performance and reliability in coping with transaction load. Today though, organizations need more than that to stay to competitive.   

Keeping pace with digital disruption

The ever-growing market demand for online availability of information is putting increasing pressure on the operation of mainframe systems. End users have different expectations than before. They require that they can access, monitor and manage their financial information online wherever and whenever via computers and mobile applications. They want to be able to search, view and purchase goods and services at any time of the day. And they want to be able to exchange information with public institutions in a timely manner.

In times of crisis, such as the outbreak of COVID-19, peaks can arise, causing unexpected problems and revealing mainframes’ vulnerability. Their vertical scalability structure makes them less resistant to unpredictable fluctuations, unless at a very high cost, even at moments when increased capacity is not required.  This can dramatically damage business operations and the credibility of an organization, be it a bank, a retail company or a state agency.

The need for flexibility, responsiveness and cost efficiency is now fueling companies’ journey to cloud. Soon enough we’ll be able to see who managed to take full advantage of it.  

Related articles: 

Mainframe modernization in times of crisis: survive or thrive? [Part 2]

Mainframe to cloud migration. How to do it right.

Manage the cuts: How vendor lock-ins will hold back organizations in the upcoming decade

Data-driven Transformation in European government institutions