Swisscom's mainframe exit marks path to the end of an era

The Swiss telco has become the first company to follow route to ending a dependency on 'big iron'

An old conundrum of the IT industry is that the pace of change can be slow for an area that is so often described as fast-moving and dynamic. Nowhere is this clearer than in the field of IBM mainframe computing where a model dating back to the middle of the 20th century has persisted despite sky-high costs, mounting administration concerns and a crippling lack of flexibility. But now the mainframe's tenacious grip on corporate IT may, finally, be weakening.

There have been many attempts to wrestle away enterprise dependence on mainframes such as Micro Focus's application migration software but one of the most ambitious and holistic efforts comes from a Swiss-headquartered startup called LzLabs.

Eight years old, LzLabs calls its proposition the Software-Defined Mainframe, taking critical applications and running them on Linux or Microsoft Azure cloud servers without adapting or recompiling application program code. The technology behind this requires a rare mix of understanding of the deep and sometimes arcane workings of mainframe software but a concomitant challenge lies in persuading customers to be pioneers. After all, nobody wants to lose their essential payroll, billing, online and batch processing operations or other mainframe and dependent services. That means there is a lot of analysis, testing and preparation to be done before becoming an ex-mainframe IT shop.

So, it was something of a milestone when LzLabs finally announced its first customer in production last month… and that customer is Swisscom.  The telecoms firm with roots going back to the 1850s has effectively moved its entire mainframe apps workload to cloud-based Red Hat Enterprise Linux x86 servers, liberating it from the boat anchor of mainframe and software licensing charges. It is also a double win in that Swisscom will not only deploy LzLabs internally but also resell it on its private cloud as a 'mainframe-as-service' offering to banks, insurers and others.

The project dates back to 2015 when Swisscom was looking at cost-saving possibilities and attention turned to the large line item relating to running costs for two IBM z12 hosts.

"We were looking at opportunities because it's a good system but it's expensive," says Markus Tschumper, Swisscom head of general IT services. "We made a business case and I can't talk about concrete numbers, but we will save 50 per cent of the costs."

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