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The mainframe environment encounters the Web, cloud and SOA -- and survives

George Lawton and Jack Vaughan

The venerable mainframe remains an important and relevant server platform despite the growth of upstart Web applications, mobile apps and SOA, industry experts say. In some areas, the mainframe has never let go of its fundamental role.

For some transaction-intensive industries,

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the onslaught of a new generation of mobile apps means nothing less than more work and more utility for mainframe technologies that existed in that long-ago time when you didn't need to say "landline"to mean the phone in your house.

The mainframe will continue to dominate in large-scale financial, banking and insurance applications, predicted James Governor, industry analyst at RedMonk in Portland, Maine. This is the case, despite a steady stream of death notices.

"I came into the business in 1995 and was constantly told that the mainframe was dead. There has been a fair amount of water under the bridge since then, and the mainframe is still growing strong," Governor said.

But there has been some divergence in the use of the mainframe. Customers committed to the platform are more so than ever. Others are not upgrading their mainframes and are seeing their existing investment deteriorate.

"I live in a 100-year-old building. The idea that I would never invest in fixing the roof tiles is just dumb," Governor said. "If you are a mainframe shop and not investing, it will rot -- and not with good result."

The mainframe environment is benefiting from the publicity swirling around cloud service, said John Howie, chief operating officer at the Cloud Security Alliance. "Modern mainframes have kept up with the times and can be easily integrated into distributed and Web-based systems," he said.

Mainframes introduced the concept of virtualization decades ago, and it's often touted as the fundamental building block of many clouds, especially Infrastructure as a Service offerings. In the last few years, mainframes have moved from proprietary, time-sharing operating systems to more modern, lightweight OSes, such as Linux. Linux can easily be integrated with a variety of systems and fully supports SOA.

The key is to put the mainframe in the right context. Howie said businesses are figuring out that their mainframes are good for certain tasks and are sized for them. While they can build up their mainframes to support new projects, they may find cost savings using commodity hardware and software instead and will inevitably focus on integration between new systems and their mainframes.

Migration away from mainframes will likely take place when there is a disruptive new technology or business process, Howie said. 'Big data' is one such technology that emphasizes the use of multiple discrete, redundant systems to crunch data that is typically in key-value format.

Still, big iron is not a far cry from big data, and much of the transactional information business analysts are looking at comes from the mainframe side of the shop.

While mainframes have added I/O agility and processors that might keep them in the game for some industries, businesses will continue to build other environments or purchase cloud services. Businesses also continue to integrate front-end Web and back-end mainframe environments, and SOA is the primary option for such integrations.

The idea that Web services and SOA have proved the most popular ways to address mainframe-class system renewal is borne out in this year's SearchSOA.com's reader survey. While 62% of respondents reported using Web services as a primary method for achieving application modernization, 58% pointed to SOA as their method of choice. Trailing Web services and SOA, migration -- moving mainframe applications to different platforms -- is the third most popular method, used by 38% of respondents.

SOA-enabled integration to mainframes could play a role in the next technology paradigm shifts -- to Web applications, mobile applications and big data.

"The amount of computing power that is demanded is expanding, and Web and mobile [applications] are doing that. What people want to know and how frequently and rapidly they want to know it has skyrocketed," said Neal McWhorter, president of consultancy at Strategic Value Partners Inc. in Chicago.

Much of the mobile movement touches on transactions -- a mainframe bastion. Once, a monthly report on accounts satisfied users. "Now, they want to be able to make transfers by phone at any time," McWhorter said. "The change in process is phenomenal."

"In the mainframe world, we are seeing that the need to drive massive volume is going to continue," McWhorter said. It is on the back end that the mainframe, for many key application elements in very crucial application types, will continue to find use.

"The front-end kind of work is not cost-effective to do on the mainframe," McWhorter said. "But now we have enormous front-end processing," he said, referring to the great farms of midrange servers now on call to handle Web requests. Clearly, the days of "screen scraping" are fading.

"Now the back-end system processing is where the game is for the mainframe," he said, "while much of the processing for Web work and mobile has been pushed up front to a variety of technology platforms."

Stephanie Mann, associate site editor for SearchSOA.com, added to this report.

This was first published in October 2012

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