IBM Says Mainframe Technology Still Relevant; Others Disagree

By | Apr 19, 2012

In an age when many enterprises are looking to the cloud for data storage, IBM is attempting to revitalize the flailing image of mainframe technology. The company has had a long run with the technology system, jump starting the mainframe age with the System 360 in the 1970s and then revitalizing the giant computer's image in the 1990s with the introduction of the System 390. Is this a case of a company trying too hard to hold onto to outdated technology? Or have enterprises given up on mainframes too soon?

Over the last 10 years, the use of mainframes has been on the decline. In 2009, the House of Representatives decommissioned their last mainframe, citing the operation and maintenance of the giant computer to no longer be cost effective. NASA recently unplugged their last mainframe computer in February 2012. The decommissioning of the final IBM mainframe came as result of cost effectiveness and convenience considerations. According to the Platform Modernization Alliance, NASA calculated that they could cut spending by $5.5 million per year just by making the switch from mainframe technology to a Microsoft Windows Server environment.

It's not just the expense that's making enterprises abandon mainframe technology. Common business-oriented language (Cobol) programming is also on the decline. The language is used to execute large-scale batch and transaction processing operations on mainframe computers. According to a survey of 357 IT professionals that was conducted by Computerworld, 46 percent of those surveyed said they's noticed a shortage of Cobol programmers and 50 percent said that the average age of their Cobol staff is 45 years of age or older. With little to no new young blood and no promise of a renaissance in sight for the language, enterprises depending on mainframes are looking to move to other platforms or rewrite the code while they still have programmers with Cobol expertise on staff.

However, according to Frank DeGilio, IBM's chief architect for cloud computing, in an article at Infoworld, the modern impression of the mainframe is based on misinformation. He argues that mainframes are in fact still a cost-effective option, especially when it comes to expanding infrastructures. The number of people it takes to operate a distributed system is higher than the number needed to run a mainframe-based system.

DeGilio also attempts to combat fears over the decline in Cobol programmers by pointing out that while although Cobol is important to mainframe operation, both J2EE and Linux are also widely supported.

Ray Jones, vice president of System z Software Sales in IBM Software Group, also touts the mainframe's continuing benefits. Destination Z reports that Jones cites the mainframe's continuing ability to process a large volume of transactions in a short amount of time and its high security as key reasons why mainframes are still beneficial. He also reasons that the giant computers have cloud computing capabilities.

If what DeGilio and Jones says is true, then mainframes are simply suffering from a bad image. Maybe focusing on the mainframe as a viable alternative to storing data in the cloud is the best way to revitalize the outdated impression many enterprises have of the giant computers. Mainframes already have a reputation for being reliable and secure; this could appeal to those concerned with variables associated with moving to the cloud. That said, those who have already moved onto other platforms aren't likely to go back, but shifting the focus could prevent further decommissioning in the next few years.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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