Enduring species: The Mainframe's ongoing evolution as bedrock technology

September 17, 2021

I have three stories to share with you. Short stories about an often overlooked technology. One that happens to power a not so insignificant slice of society. Here we go...

Not long ago, one of America's most respected research universities faced a controversial decision: Should the school “fix” its core computing platform even though it wasn’t broken? This question arose simply because the new CIO was more familiar with other technology architectures. Amazingly, for the previous two decades, the university used a single mainframe to process almost everything. Admissions. Curriculum. Operations. Without realizing it, most of the faculty and 15,000 students called upon the machine every second of every day to handle the majority of the work that kept their institution humming.

After the incoming CIO took a quick look at the machine and the small team of administrators that ran the operation, she wasn’t convinced the proven platform could take the school to where it wanted to be in the future. Being a research institution, however, careful study ensued. Following a lot of grinding discussions, performance assessments, and cost of ownership studies, it was determined that the mainframe would stay. When compared to the “Bermuda Triangle” of data center pricing that befalls many organizations, no compelling reason to jump ship could be found. Leadership simply had no good reason beyond prejudice to leave something that had worked for them for so long—especially since their mainframe was being updated with new capabilities every year.

A couple of years before that, I was speaking with customers at a conference that took place at one of the nation’s most prestigious race tracks. After lunch, I got to drive the newest generation of their signature sports car around the track. It was exhilarating! There was also another unexpected highlight for me that day. Two customers from one of the nation’s largest insurers told me that the pair of them essentially ran their company’s entire mainframe operation, which processed the lion’s share of all claims. “On the flip side, the distributed team processes a fraction of the total claims with over 100 full-time employees,” one of them said with no small measure of pride. It was reaffirming news for a mainframe guy like me.

My last story is even shorter. An IT director at one of the largest banks in Brazil (one of the world’s 10 largest economies) had recently switched from cloud to the mainframe after his team determined it would produce a better outcome. “After three months, my wife asked, ‘What’s going on with you!’” he told me with a laugh before going on to explain. “For the first time in my career, my wife and I were sleeping through the night instead of constantly being woken up to get our systems back online.” You know the saying: a happy wife is a happy life.

Let me be clear. The mainframe is not a perfect, one-size-fits-all platform. Nothing is. But it’s far from being the outdated, closed, and costly technology it’s too often wrongly perceived to be. If that were actually the case, would over 70% of Fortune 500 companies rely on one? Would 90% of all credit card transactions be processed by one? Would 68% of all IT workloads run on them, while only accounting for 6% of the total cost?

Of course not. In that way, the mainframe is more than just another technological trend. To paraphrase The Bard (yes, I’ve read Shakespeare), it’s more than just a platform that struts and frets its hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It’s an evolved and enduring species that has stood the test of time and the daily grind of business that never stops. For example, VISA has used a mainframe to processover 200 billion annual transactions for 23 years straight without a single hiccup. With the 15th generation of the technology now available, apps that run for decades, and new ones that are being updated and added every day, the mainframe is a bedrock computing species that continues to evolve and support the modern demands of today’s organizations. It deserves your consideration – scratch that; admiration.

The reality is computing trends come and go, but the mainframe has endured. It changed the world, transformed business, and keeps our societal lights on even to this day—not just for big governments and banks and insurers, but for everyone. It truly is amazing how this technology, much like great species in the natural world, has evolved and thrived. It has adapted over time to become open, consumption-based, and as relevant as ever with the right tools and teams to exploit the real potential of the platform.

I invite you to consider some of many tools we make to help the world get the most from this technological marvel. Check your preconceptions at the door and stop waiting for this “species” to die off from obsolescence. The mainframe will continue to thrive and adapt.

Will you adapt with it?

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Tag(s): Mainframe