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The mainframe no longer requires special treatment in the data centre (and other reasons why its future is bright)

(Image credit: Image Credit: Scanrail1 / Shutterstock)

The mainframe is out of touch with the needs of today’s enterprises; it’s living on borrowed time. That’s what the naysayers have been saying about the mainframe platform for several decades. Now, however, many people who are close to IBM genuinely believe there is a mainframe renaissance underway.

Enterprises are increasingly willing to open up the mainframe platform to new workloads, including emerging areas such as blockchain and AI. This is due in no small part to IBM’s huge investment in modernising and upgrading IBM Z with each new model – and the combined effect of all those technical advances is starting to make IT buyers look at the platform through new eyes. 

Here are three reasons why the future is starting to look bright for the mainframe.

1. The mainframe no longer requires specialist treatment in the data centre

Many of the special requirements which used to act as a barrier to investing in IBM Z have been gradually stripped away. Newer mainframe models no longer need specially adapted data centre facilities and a raft of technicians with mainframe-specific skills, for example.

The newest mainframe, the z15, is now available on a standard 19-inch rack – the same as any other server. With no special requirements for power or cooling, you could just wheel the box in and plug it into any data centre. In fact, take the badge off and you might not know it was a mainframe at all. Plus, you can run practically anything on the mainframe now – under z/Linux as well as z/OS.

For newer workloads, pricing, too, has been simplified in order to align better with pricing models used in the non-mainframe world.

For years, IBM’s mainframe pricing was based on average workload consumption – with peak usage during a four-hour period determining the monthly cost. For some this made it more complicated to work out how to keep costs under control. Now, if you’re running new workloads, you can use the new Tailored Fit Pricing, which is simpler, generally more cost effective and closer to the Cloud/SaaS consumption model. It also means it’s now easier to compare the cost of running applications on IBM Z with other platforms such as Intel.

In short, IBM has transformed the mainframe from a specialist piece of kit into a powerful ‘super-server’, with advanced security and compliance features built in.

2. Mainframe security, privacy and compliance capabilities are constantly improving 

IBM continues to spend millions on bringing new security and compliance technology to the mainframe, making it extremely attractive to banks, federal departments and the military – or indeed any organisation seeking watertight security and privacy.

With pervasive encryption, FIPS Level 4 certification , Secure Service Containers (SSC) and HyperProtect, the mainframe ticks all sorts of security and compliance boxes that most Intel and other hardware can’t get anywhere near.

Soon, application development on the z14 and z15 will be supported by IBM Cloud Hyper Protect Services. This certifies that the software you’re running has been securely engineered all the way from development through to being deployed in your data centre; and that means there are no ‘back doors’ and no code that can be used to infiltrate the corporate network.  It answers the question: What was the quality of the software code used by the developers when building the application and can you prove it hasn’t been tampered with? With IBM Cloud Hyper Protect Services you can trust that complete software supply chain.

Being able to roll a z15 into the datacentre at a reasonable price-point, with all these security, privacy and compliance capabilities built in; requiring only Linux skills to run it – and with no need for any special data centre accommodation – makes an incredibly persuasive argument for investing in the mainframe.

3. The mainframe’s ability to handle massive IT workloads

When it comes to sheer processing power, no other platform can keep up with the mainframe. That’s partly why it’s still relied upon by many of the world’s leading enterprises for running their businesses – including the ten top insurers; 44 of the top 50 banks; top retailers; airlines; and government departments.

Processing power is another of those areas in which IBM continues to make improvements. The new z15 is able to perform up to one trillion web transactions per day, so for sectors such as banking and ecommerce, whose core mainframe workloads are transaction processing, the platform’s performance power means it is still the best fit.

In fact, demand for greater processing power is expected to continue in ecommerce and banking. Why? One reason is the huge rise in contactless payments which are fast replacing cash for most people’s small everyday purchases.

Machine learning and blockchain applications, too, are incredibly resource intensive, making them well suited to the processing might of the mainframe.

On top of this, IBM is working hard at making the mainframe more attractive to those who want to experiment with AI and blockchain. IBM Cloud Paks, for example, bundle aspects of IBM Watson previously only available via a cloud consumption model, and offer them as shrink-wrapped software for IBM Z. So, you can run AI, blockchain and machine learning algorithms that were previously only available on the cloud (which brings the risk of exposing your data to the outside world) and actually run it on the secure Z platform. Why wouldn’t you choose to test these new technologies on the mainframe, close to existing data and applications, with all the security and protection that surrounds the platform?

Importantly, both machine learning and blockchain are new mainframe workloads so they benefit from the more cost-effective Tailored Fit Pricing. Even contactless payments qualify as a new workload courtesy of being a mobile payment method. These are more reasons to stick with the mainframe.

So why do some people still insist that the mainframe is obsolete?

IBM’s ongoing R&D investments mean that the modern mainframe is one of the most technologically advanced hardware platforms out there. However, what sometimes appears obsolete are the traditional systems and applications that run on top of it – the likes of 3270, VSE, TSO. These long-established green-screen systems come without the graphical user interfaces we all expect today, relying on old command line interfaces that irk modern computer technicians.

But even that’s changing. The mainframe community’s modernisation drive is producing new interfaces that deliver a more intuitive, modern user experience without having to make changes or disrupt the underlying applications. Traditional mainframe systems are increasingly being accessed from mobile and tablet devices. We’re seeing conversational interfaces built on top of mainframe software to guide users around the system and quickly make new recruits more productive. Mainframe applications are moving out of their traditional siloes and becoming more connected: to analytics, to AI, and even to Siri and Alexa.

If you still believe the mainframe is old hat, take another look. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Neil Evans, CTO EMEA, UNICOM Global

Neil Evans is CTO EMEA at UNICOM Global.