Swiss startup LzLabs aims to take on one of the biggest challenges for any large enterprise IT team: migrating critical applications off legacy mainframe systems.

Mainframes can seem like an anachronism in a fast-evolving technology industry that is increasingly fixated on cheap, commodity hardware supporting open source software. But more than 70 percent of commercial transactions occur on systems which, in many cases, were built back in the sixties or seventies. Numerous large UK banks, for example, are heavily reliant on mainframes for systems of record.

Yet, while considered robust and reliable for certain uses, mainframes are costly to maintain and difficult to support, particularly due to the imminent retirement of those with knowledge of a system’s inner workings.

These problems are compounded by the considerable difficulty involved in moving a mission critical application onto modern infrastructure – a process often referred to as similar to replacing a jet engine mid-flight.

But LzLabs, which came out of stealth mode earlier this year, claims its tools can enable businesses to do just that, porting mainframe applications to run on Linux based x86 hardware in a fraction of the time that typical migrations, says CEO Mark Cresswell. 

Its proposition is centred around what it calls the ‘software defined mainframe’ which allows mainframes applications to run on x86-based Linux servers.

“We realised that we had to solve some of those very thorny problems and create an environment that ran on Linux x86 and behaved exactly the same way as a legacy mainframe would,” Cresswell told ComputerworldUK.

“That is what the software defined mainframe is - a managed container running on Linux that behaves exactly the same in almost every way as the mainframe environment that we are moving the applications from.”

Cobol skills disappearing 

The need to migrate mainframe applications is principally driven by a lack of expertise around programming languages, such as Cobol and PL/1. 

“If you look back at the peak of activity in the seventies and eighties, the people that were writing those programmes and generating the billions of lines of COBOL code, have for the most part retired now. And for those that were at the younger end, the boomers, they can see retirement in the very near future,” says Cresswell, adding that those on the cusp of a career in IT are more likely to be getting to grips with much newer programming languages.

This scarcity of relevant skills makes it difficult to continue to support mainframe applications. “Maintaining computing programmes without the institutional knowledge of how they work is incredibly difficult, and enhancing them to support new business opportunities is nigh on impossible, so you have these very large organisations that are utterly dependent upon decades-old programmers with no one to maintain or enhance them.”

With large businesses increasingly relying on digital services, the constraints of legacy technology can be a huge obstacle, particularly when faced with new challenges unencumbered by dated infrastructure.

Consider the financial services sector for example. Most of the major UK banks have struggled with untangling a web of complex systems. At the same time digital-only lenders are able to build from the ground up using containers and microservices that allow them to be much more nimble.

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Cresswell says that this is a situation faced across a range of sectors. “There are a lot of companies out there that don’t have any legacy baggage and are much more agile, so can respond to changing market dynamics very quickly,” he says. “They are able to do that because they are based on entirely modern technology.”

Software eats the mainframe

LzLabs’ product is described as a managed software container that enables applications to be migrated onto Linux computers or private, public and hybrid cloud environments. For example, LzLabs announced a deal with Microsoft Azure to host its services on the Azure Public cloud, alongside a partnership with Red Hat

The LzLabs software enables an executable form of legacy mainframe software and subsystems to operate without changes to the code. However a partnership with service provider COBOL-IT is aimed at supporting those that want to adapt legacy code.

Cresswell described the migration process: “When an application is moved from the mainframe into our environment we don't recompile it or anything like that. We literally take the binary code that comes off the mainframe environment,” Cresswell explained.

“At the time we put it into the container we replace all the APIs with contemporary ones that reference our software defined mainframe container.”

LzLabs - future plans 

LzLabs’ proposition is intriguing, and the startup could have a very interesting future if it can achieve its aims.

Its CEO says the company is open to further funding as it attempts to grow and expand the business. There are currently “half a dozen” customers trialling LzLabs products, including those in the financial and telecommunications sectors.

One major challenge will be going up against IBM, for which mainframes continue to be a significant source of revenue.

As a recent 451 Research report points out, there have been a number of attempts to help IBM customers move off mainframes, most of which struggled in the face of opposition from the larger vendor, or ended up being acquired, such as Transitive and Platform Solutions.

In the short term the goal will be to prove that it can deliver on its claims in trials with customers. This will be vital to persuading more large firms to take the plunge and move off their mainframes. There will certainly be no shortage of mainframe-owning businesses keen to see the results.

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