The mainframe evolves into a new beast in the cloud era

Cloud computing didn't kill the mainframe. The disruptive technology did, however, cause the mainframe to evolve.



The cloud world inherited some concepts from the mainframe world that came before it. The consumption-based pricing model, Linux virtual machines, and multi-tenancy came from that previous mainframe generation. NASA got rid of its mainframes, but these massive machines can still be found in many large organizations.

In the age of cloud IT, aren't mainframes irrelevant? Why won't the mainframe die?

David Hodgson, SVP at CA Technologies, Inc., described the role of mainframes today. CA started 38 years ago as a mainframe software supplier and still does mainframe work. In my interview with Hodgson, he said, "The mainframe business to CA is still just over 50% of our revenue." CA Technologies is not a small company--it's in the Fortune 500, has billions of dollars in revenue, and employs many thousands of people.

What is a mainframe computer?

A mainframe computer is a type of big, powerful, expensive, and reliable computer that has been around for decades--IBM announced the System/360 50 years ago. A lot of the applications running on these machines were written in COBOL, a programming language that's just as old as the mainframes.

Several vendors sell mainframes today, but "mainframe environment" pretty much means IBM zSeries machines. Hodgson said, "the old established mainframe environment operating system is called z/OS. Most of the historic financial processing is on z/OS.

"You've got this funny mix of applications that are years old and written in COBOL. The storage side of things really hasn't changed much over the years… and it's probably one of the more expensive aspects of owning a mainframe."

This is not a machine built for ordinary workloads--a mainframe runs big jobs, such as the managing the databases of an insurance company, the scientific research of a national government, and the credit card transactions of a bank. Many people have never even seen a mainframe.

The mainframe is dead.

Who wants to work with mainframes? Surely, coders want to conquer the world with Python, APIs, and web services. They don't want to work with old CICS RPG programs. System administrators want to build distributed computing systems with cloud building blocks that are fault tolerant and highly scalable. Finance officers want to rent cheap commodity hardware, not soak up their budget with a high-end expensive kit.

In fact, the mainframe is already dead, several times over. Its death has been reported as the outcome of every new disruptive technology to sweep the IT world. The mainframe was killed off by the desktop PC revolution. And again by the client-server revolution. And now by the cloud computing revolution, where massive quantities of CPU, storage, and memory are instantly available for anyone to rent. 

If mainframes are old technology and basically dead, then why are they still so central to so many enterprises?

The mainframe is not dead.

Hodgson said the mainframe is still "massive in the industry. Despite the predictions and rumours, it's really not going away. While some of the smaller customers have dropped off, all of the bigger customers are growing their workloads on the mainframe."

There are two sides to why the mainframe market is still going strong. One is lock-in--an old business-critical application running on a mainframe, with many years of business logic built into it, costs a fortune to migrate elsewhere.

The other is the mainframe's relevance in a modern hybrid cloud architecture, running VMs on-premise and storing petabytes of data. Hodgson said the mainframe "has evolved a lot over the years. You can run Linux on the mainframe. We're leveraging Linux to do a VMware-like cloud environment--essentially a private cloud--on the mainframe."  

Hodgson talked about modern cloud providers. "A lot of what these big providers are doing is really trying to recreate the mainframe by hashing together a lot of servers." A private cloud made from many commodity boxes--one that can provide, say, 5,000 virtual machines--has things in common with a mainframe.

  • Both contain huge pools of CPU and memory for virtual machines, and massive amounts of storage for objects and images.
  • Both run an OS that virtualizes workloads to maximize efficiency.
  • Both can deal with high volumes of transactions. Many of the scaling problems being encountered in the cloud were solved long ago by mainframe technicians.

An enterprise that runs Java on-premise may find a mainframe useful. "z/OS is probably the most efficient place to run Java. You put the code where the data is, and you get to remove any network latency for the transactions."

The mainframe's place in the modern cloud world

Can a mainframe deliver the agility, efficiency, and quality that cloud computing provides? One beefy mainframe can be more useful than a fleet of commodity boxes, but only for certain types of work. No one is going to buy a new IBM z10 for small workloads--that would be like buying a big truck for the school run--but on a large scale it can be a better choice. Despite the high cost, mainframe use may be cheaper than commodity hardware use for enterprise-scale workloads.

The web did not kill print, MP3s did not kill the record industry, the mobile phone did not kill the desktop, and cloud computing has not killed off the mainframe. These disruptive technologies have caused drastic shifts in their markets.

Hodgson compared today's IBM z10 mainframe with the original System/360. "It's a 50 year old machine, in a sense. It's evolved and improved and IBM's poured billions of dollars into it, so it's kept pace." You could say the mainframe of old really is dead--adapting to each new IT disruption has changed it into a different beast.

Read more about mainframes 

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By Nick Hardiman

Nick Hardiman builds and maintains the infrastructure required to run Internet services. Nick deals with the lower layers of the Internet - the machines, networks, operating systems, and applications. Nick's job stops there, and he hands over to the ...