Before you retire that mainframe, consider the alternative and what it may not be able to do for you.
It's no secret that much of the insurance industry is still powered by mainframes—most commonly, IBM's System z boxes. And, for years, the impetus has been to try to push applications off these legacy boxes, onto something considered more versatile and cost-effective, such as Windows or Linux-based commodity servers.
I've been following the mainframe space for some time now, and I've seen these boxes evolve from giant boxes running a single industrial-strength operating system (now branded as z/OS, formerly OS/360) on industrial-strength processors.
However, in recent years, mainframes have become much more than that. They have become highly modular in themselves, able to not only run traditional Big Iron applications, but also highly distributed Linux-based applications, either on the core processor itself, or within attached specialty (zIIP) engines or blade servers. The environment is highly virtualized—supporting an endless number of partitions—enabling organizations to run countless instances of Linux or even Unix applications, all taking advantage of the big machine's security and scalability.
Where's the value? An organization with a huge server farm—or server boxes scattered all over the place, presenting difficult management challenges—can essentially consolidate everything onto one box. Or, for anyone considering private cloud, the mainframe may be the best environment to host the cloud.
Gartner's Chris Gaun has also been pondering the under-appreciated role of mainframes as of late. In a new post, he opines that mainframes may actually still offer the least expensive option for organizations looking for ways to keep IT costs under control.
While he admits that mainframes “are not small purchases,” it's notable that mainframe sales have been strong in emerging markets around the globe—places where organizations are making the choice based on economics and future-thinking, not on simply being locked into legacy upgrade paths from previous generations. “Customers who purchase mainframes, and the vendors that sell them, say that the value (and premium) comes from reliability, stack integration, and other benefits. Switching to an alternate architecture can also be more expensive than staying on Big Iron.”
While every situation, along with the IT needs to support them, is different, it's worth considering how deeply to go within a IT migration strategy. Mainframe skills are getting scarcer, and this is also a long-term factor to weigh. But mainframes tend to be more business-ready than attempting to network and cobble together distributed systems. As Gaun put it: “It can be cheaper to drop in a ready-built solution than finding people who can build it for cheap, and have it work! In the enterprise, even a small chance that there is a mistake can draw out projects, lead to more purchases, and hurt a business’ competitive advantage. It is possible that the cheapest solution then, is something that comes with a premium.”
And, as mentioned above, the mainframe is evolving into a big, powerful Linux box—and Linux is a very popular skill among younger and older IT professionals.
Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.
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