In a strange bit of irony, the biggest news and the biggest cloud event of 2021 was all about mainframes. Yes, mainframes, those supposed relics of a bygone enterprise era.
In his inaugural keynote at AWS re:Invent 2021 as AWS CEO, Adam Selipsky used his time to talk up new Graviton3 chips, private 5G networks, some database and data lake functional improvements and a few other things. But arguably the most exciting thing of all was also the most boring: mainframes.
Why? Because it’s perhaps one of the clearest signals yet that AWS realizes that it’s not going to take the world into the cloudy future without first helping enterprises come to terms with their legacy pasts.
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A mainframe for you! And one for you! And you!
I suspect there are few CIOs who wake up each day and think, “I wish we had more mainframes here.” Love them or hate them, mainframes continue to serve a useful role within large enterprises, and removing them is often easier said than done. Mainframes, after all, often power the systems of record for banking, telecom and more. When you swipe a credit card, your transaction is hitting a mainframe somewhere. These are the unsexy but not-easily-replaced applications that run large enterprises.
While CIOs may find it hard to shake the mainframes from their IT environments, they’re running out of people who can staff them. In a Deloitte report, the authors found that roughly a quarter of IT workers are in the Baby Boomer age demographic, a demographic that is quite literally aging out of the workforce. This is a big problem. “Among this generation are the coders who developed and now maintain legacy applications and mainframes. When these workers retire, they often take with them years — sometimes decades — of knowledge about how applications work and the languages in which they are written.”
Though years ago AWS was almost strident in denouncing “fake cloud” (private data centers masquerading as clouds), and spurned the very idea of hybrid computing, the company keeps getting more pragmatic in its stance (AWS Outposts, partnership with VMware, multicloud with EKS Anywhere, etc.). The reason? Cloud is going to take a very long time, and in its quest for growth, AWS has discovered that it needs to help companies to modernize, not heckle them for resisting. But even by its standards, announcing the new AWS Mainframe Modernization is a master class in realpolitik.
AWS Mainframe Modernization: There are two paths you can go by
With the AWS Mainframe Modernization service, enterprises can pick one (or both) of two paths, either automated refactoring or re-platforming. The first is to “refactor their mainframe workloads to run on AWS by transforming legacy applications [many written in COBOL] into modern Java-based cloud services,” according to the press release. If they want an easier lift, they can simply re-platform to AWS while making minimal code changes.
Either way, “A runtime environment built into AWS Mainframe Modernization provides the necessary compute, memory and storage to run both refactored and re-platformed applications and automatically handles the details of capacity provisioning, security, load balancing, auto-scaling and application health monitoring.”
In both cases, AWS aims to make it easier for companies to move on from mainframes. But, just as with the VMware partnership and Outposts (to allow hybrid workloads), AWS isn’t simply telling enterprises to “modernize or die.” Instead, it’s showing much more empathy and thoughtfulness in meeting customers where they are, and helping them move at their preferred pace to the cloud, with their preferred partners. In the press release, for example, both Accenture and DXC Technology offer quotes in support of the service. Such systems integrators, not AWS, have decades of trust built up with enterprises struggling to get the most from their mainframe investments. It makes sense to let them lead with modernization.
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To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a race against a particular technology. Mainframes might not be the preferred “form factor” for tech today, but the green screen era of mainframes is largely past. AWS billed the Mainframe Modernization service as one way to get to Java, for example, but modern mainframes are already there. Yes, this is partly a technology modernization issue, but ultimately it’s a people issue.
And, really, a race against time.
Whatever the historic merits of mainframes, there simply aren’t many people today who know how to use them. Universities may teach ancient Egyptian history, but even they don’t waste time teaching mainframe skills. That means there’s a big swath of enterprise computing that is on a collision course with obsolescence, and AWS is trying to enable a soft landing. It’s a shrewd move, and much more effective than the mainframe shaming of the past. It’s an AWS that increasingly understands that “Customer Obsession” starts with meeting customers where they are, not where they “should” be.
Disclosure: I work for MongoDB and previously worked for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine.