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The Challenges of Mainframe Modernization

By: Edward Huskin


a server room

Forward-thinking businesses know that business trends aren’t permanent and that they should always be on their toes so they can adapt to the call of the times. Technological innovation has been a big help for businesses in all industries, but this has come at the price of varying learning curves and responding through modified business processes or entirely new ones.

Companies that have been quick to adopt modern technologies have seen apparent ROI opportunities, and those that haven’t are clearly missing out. Cloud computing is one of the many platforms that have shown promise, especially for businesses that are more online than offline. It has been a solution of choice for its convenience and affordability. Smaller businesses can opt to pick just the components they need and get going in no time. They can then simply plug and play additional components or remove the ones they don’t need anymore.

In the background, there has been a so-called “tech dinosaur” that remains relevant to this day—the mainframe. Despite being referred to by many as legacy software, the mainframe has proven that it can stand toe to toe with more modern rivals, providing the robustness and computing power that today’s businesses need.

Today’s mainframe systems handle 400 million retail transactions in a single day and are considered the backbone of several banking and financial institutions, handling 87% of credit card transactions around the world.

Roadblocks to Digital Transformation

The success of digital transformation depends on an organization’s knowledge of the playing field, including the risks and challenges involved. Small to medium-sized businesses may find the process simpler due to its relatively smaller scope, but it still requires a significant investment of time and money.

Mainframe modernization is a large part of this process since most applications these businesses use have been built a long time ago. Migrating to a new platform may cause operational issues and impact the business, so modernization or digitization is a more feasible solution.

This solution, however, comes with several challenges:

  • High modernization costs
    Budget overruns aren’t too far away when an organization isn’t careful. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the “latest and greatest,” adopting modern systems or applications without careful consideration of what your business truly needs. Unknown or unforeseen dependencies that can be caused by complicated application architectures should also be considered as they can cause major delays.
  • Loss of application knowledge
    Most IT professionals with expertise on mainframe systems and other legacy applications are on the verge of retirement since mainframes have been in use for decades. It’s a challenge to maintain mainframes and dependent systems because as older IT professionals go, so does their application knowledge. Instead of becoming routine processes, they are major exercises performed by people with limited expertise who are often unsure of the consequences of their actions.
  • Skills shortage
    The infrastructure of mainframe systems isn’t as simple or straightforward as today’s modern applications. The sheer number of components adds to the difficulties in understanding mainframe systems since one also has to be knowledgeable about the interdependencies between them. Finding and retaining people with the right application development skills is hard enough; with mainframes and other legacy systems, there is also the issue of finding people with z/OS performance and capacity skills, which are arguably harder to find.
  • Performance and stability issues
    Improving performance is one of the key reasons that influence business decision making, so it’s ironic that performance and stability issues plague most digital transformation initiatives. Often, applications are carried forward to new platforms even if there are issues that have gone unnoticed due to application size. Migration tools are also a key consideration because there are some that don’t come with performance tuning features.
  • Resistance to new technology
    Most organizations are set in their ways, especially when it comes to the systems they use. It’s hard to get buy-in from stakeholders and employees because there are already processes built around current systems and methods designed to make the system work toward achieving business goals. Even small changes that involve new features or platforms can be difficult to implement because members of an organization are resistant to changes that will disrupt the status quo—especially if the status quo presents no immediate cause for concern.

As business needs change, there’s a need for computing platforms to evolve so that these needs are addressed. The solution, however, doesn’t always lie in modern systems and the newest applications. Instead, businesses should examine their current requirements and what tools they already have so they can make the best decision on how to move forward.

Migration to newer systems might be an alternative, but the risks, challenges, and costs involved should be considered carefully. Often, combining existing tools with modern technologies is a more cost-effective and efficient solution in the long term.

Published: December 31, 2021

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