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Mainframe Modernization: Stay in Place, or Replatform?

Joe Stanganelli Managing Editor, TechBeacon
Photo by Dan Lynn on Unsplash

Mainframes remain a critical mainstay of business and IT operations. According to Rocket Software's 2022 Survey Report, "The State of the Mainframe," 56% of IT professionals in firms using mainframes reported that the majority of their infrastructure relies on their mainframes. Moreover, 80% stated that the mainframe is either "very critical" or "extremely critical" to their organization's business operations.

But the world, adjusting to increased cloud usage and widespread remote work, has been moving on. To keep up with changing customer demands and business needs, enterprise organizations are increasingly modernizing their mainframe environments.

"[O]rganizations are looking for ways to continually pursue their digital transformation goals without compromising on [mainframe] capabilities," reads the report.

The question for these organizations, then, is: What does it mean to modernize?

The Meaning of Mainframe Modernization

Mainframe modernization means different things to different people. Many apply a plain-meaning rule: If you're modernizing your mainframe, strictly speaking, you're modernizing it in place—updating it with new applications and integrations. To yet others, modernization necessarily involves ridding oneself of all of that pesky COBOL and replatforming elsewhere (for instance, on the cloud or a distributed system).

Misty Decker, director of worldwide AMC product marketing at Micro Focus, characterizes the dichotomy as confusing and not entirely helpful. Decker calls for moving to a broader definition of mainframe modernization that is based on goals and outcomes instead of tools.

"The broadest way to define modernization is not about the technology you're using, but by [how you are] meeting modern business needs," said Decker. "It's really about how well [an] application or infrastructure is meeting the needs of the business."

From this point of view, the mainframe component of mainframe modernization is almost incidental. Instead, for Decker, the doctrine of meeting business needs is everything.

"Modernization is not about the age of the application or the infrastructure," said Decker. "A lot of [modernization] techniques apply the same to an application that is only six months old and is no longer serving the needs of the business."

The Needs of the Business

Still, the most fundamental business need of all is profit. From that perspective, the distinction between modernizing in place and migrating to a new platform may make a notable difference. Peter Rutten, research vice president at IDC, told TechBeacon that, historically, modernizing a mainframe in place has statistically been more cost-effective than replatforming to the cloud.

According to IDC's research into the topic, Rutten said, there have been no notable differences between in-place modernizers and cloud replatformers when it comes to impact on revenue or agility. At the same time, however, in-place modernizers saw reduced costs in their modernization efforts than did those who migrated to the cloud—including lower hardware costs, fewer consulting needs, less investment needed in acquiring new skill sets, and lower business-disruption costs.
"[S]ome CIOs and CTOs [will] say, 'Hey, we need to go to the cloud; we can't stay on this legacy platform,'" said Rutten. "That is just a myth, [and] there are more pragmatic choices that you can make that involve the mainframe."

"If you ask an executive what their modernization strategy is, and they answer, 'Moving to the cloud,' that's defining success and failure by the technology—not the business outcome," said Decker. "If you can achieve the result with less cost, wouldn't you do that? And moving can be costly."

Accordingly, Decker advises that would-be modernizers ask themselves the following three basic yet all-too-often overlooked questions:

  1. What are my business objectives?
  2. What are all the possible paths to achieving those business objectives?
  3. Which is the best path?

Rutten, too, points out that modernizing should be about realizing goals—and then figuring out what the path to those goals looks like.

"If you have a mainframe—or several mainframes—in your organization, what you have to [assess] is what you are trying to do strategically in terms of your digital business, your digital transformation, your integration, your digital customer service, etc.," said Rutten.

From there, Rutten urged, organizations should determine how they can connect and integrate any other relevant platforms with the mainframe.

More than Money

The answers to any of these questions involve more than direct dollars-and-cents payments. Beyond costs, Rutten pointed to one other differentiator between in-place modernizers and replatformers: in-place modernizers showed greater increases in satisfaction than did their replatforming counterparts.

The way Decker tells it, it's not hard to see why.

"When you do modernization . . . the first thing you do is stand up a tiger team full of all of your cloud people, all of your Windows people, maybe a few external consultants, and you say, 'This is the team that's going to create the new project. All of you working on that legacy hardware and these legacy applications, you just keep the lights on, and this new team over here is going to build our new future,'" said Decker. "By the way, subtext: The new future doesn't include you."

The result, Decker explained, is that those on the "just keep the lights on" side will act in an economically rational way: They will not help, and they may even work to kill the modernization project—representing a failure of change management and internal marketing.

"You're being asked to do what sounds like stupid grunt work that's going to end up being thrown away, while somebody over there is determining that you are going to be out of a job whenever they succeed," said Decker. "You're not going to be motivated to do anything to make sure it's successful; that is one of the biggest issues I've seen."

The upshot is that companies need to modernize their management and company culture just as much as they need to modernize any application, infrastructure, or process. Decker notes that this can be accomplished through building integrated management layers and cross-organizational teams—ensuring a way of getting broadly sourced input while retaining a place for preexisting skill sets and knowledge.

Cultural modernization also comes through making mainframe-modernization efforts an ongoing initiative instead of a one-and-done project.

"[For] this cultural aspect, you have to create an environment of continuous mainframe modernization," said Rutten. "It shouldn't be, 'Let's invest a little bit in the mainframe and then have it churn along.'"

The Place of Cloud

Even among replatformers, the mainframe is not going away. Only 4% of respondents in Rocket Software's survey reported going completely cloud native. Close to four out of five are taking at least some degree of a hybrid cloud approach.

"This trend emphasizes the need for integration and optimization," reads the report. "Modernizing in place with a hybrid cloud strategy will be the path for enterprises to achieve the best business outcomes into the future."

"You can keep some of the good stuff on the mainframe while you're also benefiting from additional platforms, and integrate them," said Rutten. "It's fantastic for anybody that runs a mainframe because those modern applications that you've developed in the cloud can now start using all your data on the mainframe and—for instance—make them accessible for customer-facing applications."

That said, Decker is emphatic that, between replatforming and modernizing in place, there is no one-size-fits-all.

"There is no the best answer," said Decker. "There is only your best answer. And your best answer depends heavily on your situation—as well as the constantly changing technology available."

Regardless of what the right approach or best approach to mainframe modernization is, however, Rutten makes clear that there is precisely one very wrong thing to do: Not modernizing at all.

"Doing nothing is a losing proposition," said Rutten. "And if you decide to do something, which is very important and the right thing to do, then between modernizing on the platform and replatforming, it very much depends upon what kind of business you are [and] what kinds of workloads you have—and so you have to be pragmatic about that."

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