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The resurgence of the mainframe

Mon 7 Oct 2019 | Oliver Presland

In an era where cloud remains the buzzword of choice, the mainframe is staging its comeback, writes Ensono’s Oliver Presland

Not a lot of 55 year-olds look as good as the mainframe.

Back in 1964, along with the release of The Beatles’ legendary A Hard Day’s Night and cinematic classic Mary Poppins, came the release of IBM’s groundbreaking IBM System/360.

Since then, mainframes have established themselves in the vast majority of business critical applications as the beating heart of technical infrastructure. So much so that the mainframe market is expected to grow by a further 4.3% by 2025, bringing it to a worth of nearly $3bn per annum.

Despite this, Stewart Alsop’s infamous condemnation of the mainframe, predicting its demise in 1996, continues to plague the technology’s image. With a reputation for being big, clunky and expensive, it is often overlooked for its newer, flashier cloud counterpart. Yet the modern mainframe can match, and even sometimes exceed, the capabilities of its newer IT cousins.

Demand

Mainframe technology has come a long way from its early days. A single top-end mainframe solution can process up to $790bn of transactions daily. On a broader scale, it offers the kind of computing power that can power 30 billion transactions a day, and it’s not difficult to understand why it remains the backbone of 92 of the world’s 100 biggest banks.

What’s been particularly of interest is how the mainframe has adapted to the modern market. Cloud services, blockchain and the possibilities of the Internet of Things (IoT) have helped generate more data than ever – data that then needs to be aggregated and processed at a faster rate than ever before.

Consumers are also demanding much more from their data, and want to access it on their terms. People now check their bank balances more regularly, for instance, accessing accounts on their mobile devices. While the quantity of this data may be inconsequential, if you multiply this by the number of people worldwide who logon to their mobile banking daily, it quickly adds up.

This high volume transactional throughput is the mainframe’s bread and butter, and the rising demand for more processing and computational power has left the mainframe in a key position. In fact, IBM has just re-pledged its commitment to the mainframe with the release of its latest Z-15 range – a series that pushes the boundaries of mainframe capabilities with better-than-ever cloud native development and security encryption.

There’s no single alternative that can adequately come close to its scale, speed and security. To imagine a future without mainframes is to simply imagine more cyber attacks and less responsive systems.

Evolution

Mainframes haven’t just survived these last 55 years; they’ve thrived. IBM’s latest mainframe solutions are testament to that evolution, with systems now able to handle a colossal 30 billion transactions per day. Coupled with deployment of open source software on IBM’s solutions, mainframes are also proving to be far less expensive than assumed and able to embrace the modern world of application development and DevOps.

What’s been pivotal to their ongoing success is their ability to adapt and evolve, which is no easy feat in the fast paced technology industry. The modern mainframe’s security capabilities are market-leading, especially crucial in a post-GDPR landscape. Security has always been a core feature of mainframes, of course, but what’s particularly impressive is how robustly they’ve moved on, to the point where the latest solutions can pervasively encrypt all data at a disk, data set or database level.

The security features are such that enterprises can now consider using the mainframe as a cryptographic hub, in turn doing away with the need for separate such devices and appliances.

Reliability and capability remain the other central tenets of the mainframe, of course, but you only have to look at the type of applications a modern mainframe is tasked with running to get a flavour of just how far the technology has come. On the one hand, processing millions upon millions of credit card transactions for Visa every minute of the day, on the other encompassing blockchain technology, containers, cloud capabilities and machine virtualisation. These underpin intense processing jobs, business-critical tasks, and mainframes are rightly their home.

Looking at the next 55 years

It’s all come a long way since IBM’s first mainframe system, and the technology is showing no signs of slowing down in its old age. Despite the doubt around its continued existence, the benefits of the technology have proved far more persuasive.

The mainframe continues to break ground. In the 1960s, it was its punch cards and magnetic tape and the ability to fit into one room turning heads. Now, businesses are discovering that the mainframe is the modern solution to their needs that they’ve been looking for all along and capable of supporting their digital transformation.

Rather than predicting the next mainframe apocalypse, it is clearer than ever that the mainframe has a big part still to play in the future of modern application infrastructure.

Experts featured:

Oliver Presland

Vice President, Global Product Management
Ensono

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