Taking the right steps toward mainframe modernization

Data traveling inside a tunnel
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2023, the mainframe remains a mainstay in many organizations. Acting as the central data hub in a business’s data processing center, the mainframe is the centralized repository for all workstations and terminals. Hosting an abundance of customer records and data, it offers valuable insights into customer experience and business operations, over time earning a reputation for its resiliency and proven steadiness. It’s because of this that some of the world’s most important industries and organizations remain reliant to the mainframe, including 44 of the top 50 banks and 8 of the top 10 telcos, as well as retailers, and utilities firms. But in an era where digital services differentiate organizations and cloud is the digital accelerant, many organizations are left wondering: how does the mainframe fit in to a modern IT strategy?

Challenges in managing mainframe

Ageing, legacy mainframe technologies introduce a number of challenges. Inefficiencies can end up being very costly for organizations, with troubleshooting overly complicated by applications with hidden or buried code. Redundant code can also cause the mainframe to become overloaded, impacting performance. One of the challenges is that increasing uptake of digital services namely online shopping or the move to cashless transactions (ie contactless) actually increases the load on the mainframe, pushing up the cost and increasing the operational risk.

Despite the mainframe being a critical backbone of their business, many organizations often lack the specific skills and expertise needed to maintain and manage their mainframe technology. Skilled mainframe programmers are now reaching retirement, with mainframe programming languages not as popular with developers now. Without a sense of what’s needed to update or maintain mainframe code, or the lack of clear strategy around what their options are, developers may be confused about the direction they should be moving in with their mainframe.

Ben Scowen
Ben Scowen

Ben Scowen is Cloud Practice Lead for UK & Ireland at Kyndryl.

The answer: modernization

As part of their digital and IT transformation journey, it’s clear that many companies want to take advantage of cloud computing to increase business agility, drive innovation, and optimize employee efforts – in fact, cloud computing usage increased to 94% of companies in 2022. And while companies want the flexibility that cloud offers, many of the digital services and business-critical workloads still depend on the mainframe.

The solution to this issue lies in modernisation. There is often a binary approach to deciding whether to ‘stay on’ or ‘move off’ the mainframe, yet the interim solution is often innovating the platform and integrating with cloud computing.

Modernization done right allows you to

  • Integrate the mainframe with hybrid-cloud, and exploit mainframe data and processes with digital.
  • Adopt a structured and realistic approach to the future of your mainframe.
  • Optimize mainframe usage.
  • Capitalize on hyperscaler & partner experience, talent & innovation to reduce cost.
  • More effectively negotiate with mainframe hardware and software providers.
  • Reduce dependency on skilled mainframe architects and engineer.
  • Enable business users to better innovate.

The mainframe modernization journey

Successful modernization always starts with a well-informed strategy and roadmap. To deliver value early and minimize downtime, this holistic strategy should focus on identifying and defining the right platform for each business’s workload and customers.

The first step is deciding which mainframe strategy to adopt: investing in the mainframe, maintaining it, or divesting the platform. One key aspect to consider here is avoiding simply “caretaking the mainframe”, as mentioned by the Gartner report “Fit Your Mainframe Into Your Modernization Plans”.

The second step is to determine the method of mainframe modernization. Businesses can:

1. Modernise on the mainframe by optimising existing applications, data, and infrastructure to be more efficient. This might involve implementing DevOps or DevSecOps to align better with cloud computing.

2. Integrate applications and data with hyperscalers or public cloud providers, enabling an open mainframe that will more successfully integrate with a hybrid cloud environment.

3. Move data, applications, and workloads off the mainframe completely and onto the cloud environment.

4. Take a combination of these approaches. This might mean modernizing some applications while keeping others on the mainframe, moving some off the mainframe entirely, and integrating others.

The final step in the modernization process is to implement an end-to-end approach that will future-proof the mainframe estate and effectively tackle mainframe staffing requirements. As mentioned in the Gartner report, businesses should be conscious of the five Rs – replatform, refactor, rearchitect, rebuild, and replace – when fitting the mainframe into modernization plans, ensuring that the computing platform works for the business, not the other way around.

2023 looks to be a year of transformation for the mainframe, whereby we will see more organizations making their mainframe an integral engine of hybrid IT strategies. For any company looking to stay competitive, the modernization of these legacy solutions is inevitable. However, the importance of tailoring the modernization strategy to each business’s customers, operations, and budgets cannot be understated, especially in a time of growing economic uncertainty.

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Ben Scowen

Ben Scowen is Cloud Practice Lead UK&I at Kyndryl.