Long live the mainframe

The mainframe is making a comeback, despite industry perceptions. Reasons for this range from the availability of 'state-of-the-art hardware technology’ to the fact that traditional mainframe environments underpin large volume transactions...


The mainframe is making a comeback, despite industry perceptions. Reasons for this range from the availability of 'state-of-the-art hardware technology’ to the fact that traditional mainframe environments underpin large volume transactions across a number of businesses.

Despite this “Mainframe Renaissance”, many enterprises are also experiencing “Mainframe Succession”; whereby a soon-to-retire workforce of experienced mainframe programmers are giving way to a new generation of developers.

This isn’t necessarily an easy transition. Younger IT professioals are increasingly deterred by the aged, outdated perception of mainframe. This is creating a black hole within the industry - a dilemma for succession planning.

Machine and Man: Why the mainframe is both a technology and a human asset

The departure of experienced mainframe developers has been on the horizon for some time, yet little is known about the wider business impact of a potential skills shortage. To understand the consequences, it is important to appreciate the role of the mainframe in today’s business environment.

In a recent survey by Compuware, 78 percent of CIOs said the mainframe will remain a key business asset over the next decade. Considering the average loss of revenue from just one minute of outage is estimated at $14,000 and the risks from mainframe outages, it is unsurprising that 71 percent of CIOs felt that the looming skills shortage will hurt their business.

Experienced developers are themselves also business-critical assets. The loss of this expertise will lead to increased costs as inexperienced developers spend more time getting to grips with their mainframe applications. Unfortunately, this steep learning curve also means that there are more chances for error and, ultimately, loss of revenue through application outages.

Mainframe Brain Drain: Challenges with plugging the hole in mainframe expertise

Businesses must act quickly to address the problem of ‘mainframe brain drain’ or suffer a cycle of spiralling costs and outages. The challenge for CIOs is resource management. When asked whether there was a formal plan in place to address developer shortages, 46 percent of CIOs admitted to not having one. However, as developer salaries represent nearly half of annual mainframe OpEx, it’s understandable why any formal plans are difficult to implement: experienced mainframe developers are becoming a rare and precious commodity.

In fact, there might not even be a pool of new talent to draw from. 69 percent of CIOs believe that a lack of change in the mainframe environment is turning IT graduates off from mainframe development. Indeed, for technology-savvy programmers, the green screen ISPF environment of the mainframe can feel like a step back in time.

Furthermore, the challenge of managing developer resources now looks set to amplify as a result of demands across the wider business and IT environment. For example, the rise in online banking and e-commerce has made mainframe applications critical to better connect businesses with customers. As a result, businesses today are adopting new technologies such as cloud computing and mobile applications, forcing mainframe teams to integrate customer-facing applications with legacy mainframe applications at record pace: what we define as the “New Normal of Mainframe”.

This New Normal is inevitably increasing application complexity, which explains why 56 percent of CIOs state that mainframe developers are struggling to meet the changing needs of the business.

Regulatory changes and new distributed platforms are also increasing MIPS usage and adding further pressure on the mainframe.

IT Efficiency: Aligning the mainframe to top IT priorities

The rise in demand for mainframe development coupled with a potential lack of newer developers puts mainframe teams at risk of becoming less effective when supporting applications that are critical to today’s economy. The current economic climate is also placing IT efficiency as a top priority for most businesses. As such, CIOs must streamline mainframe investments by improving the productivity of remaining developers and new entrants.

However, investments in new mainframe modernisation technologies are difficult to justify. If IT efficiency is about making better use of existing resources, updating the mainframe environment must be easy to implement and cost-effective.

Mainframe succession from the old guard of developers must also happen as smoothly as possible. This means that developers across the board need intuitive tools and techniques that will empower them to improve productivity.

Resuscitation: Bringing new life to Mainframe

Business dependency on the mainframe is so strong that any disruption can lead to massive financial losses. Nevertheless, mainframe development can no longer be a niche discipline. Despite attempts to bring in new talent, stagnation within mainframe development could consequently be a major barrier to business agility.

To overcome this, businesses must be able to streamline mainframe investment. Using tried and test tools rather than new technology that can disrupt the mainframe environment should improve developer productivity across the board.

Overlaying more modern interfaces, such as an updated GUI alongside the traditional ISPF interface will also help attract newer and younger generations to work on the mainframe. Not only is it more interactive, but it will better resemble newer, intuitive technology that recent graduates have grown up with and use in their daily lives.

This familiarity will also help reduce errors, thus mitigating the risks created by the New Normal. Overall, this helps businesses address their mainframe skills requirements that are needed to develop, maintain and manage the performance of business-critical applications.

This is why mainframe succession is about having a plan that balances old and new. It is all about capturing the knowledge and maximising the productivity of existing mainframe workers. At the same time, businesses need to attract a new generation and train them quickly.

Posted by Neil Richards, European mainframe director, Compuware

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