The mainframe is not dead yet

Can LzLabs destroy the environment that has sustained one of our most cherished foundations that has been here since IT began?

One of the oldest living ecosystems in the world is under threat, and each day a space the size of an Amazon datacentre eats into its share of the world footprint. It would be a crying shame to lose it because it is thought to pre-date the dinosaurs. It has seen off meteor storms, client server and even the millennium bug. But we may lose this magnificent big iron beast.

I’m talking about the mainframe of course. The Cloud hangs over it, like a sword of Damocles, threatening to deprive it. How long can this legacy hold on for?

Facebook, Amazon and all your other favourite cloud brands haven’t suffocated it yet, apparently. There’s still a pulse in the beast. In fact, last time someone measured its vital signs, the mainframe CICS was running 1.1m transactions per second (10bn a day). It was even showing the cloud kids a few moves, handling 6,900 tweets, 30,000 Facebook likes and 60,000 Google searches per second, according to IBM Hursley Labs.

The mainframe has ‘legs’ and it has kept up with the web and mobile technology.

“When you refresh your mobile to check your bank balance that information is being handled on a mainframe,” says Chris O’Malley, the CEO of mainframe software giant Compuware and author of Mainstreaming The Mainframe.

Maybe IBM should get with the times and dispatch all information to mobiles with a signature that says, “Sent from an IBM mainframe”.


Mainframe hunters

Applications developed 50 years ago can still run on the latest zEnterprise and 90% of global financial transactions are processed using the Cobol programming language. The code written in those days captured the essence of the user company in a way that is not emulated today, says Compuware’s O’Malley. Besides, Cobol is much closer to machine code and translates into a much more efficient system. “It would be a fool’s errand to take the Cobol applications off and put them in the cloud,” says O’Malley. 

One bank has run a credit card authorisation program on its IBM mainframe for 12 years without ever taking it down for maintenance. Analyst Gartner says 92 of the world’s 100 largest banks use System z mainframes.

However, the ancient legacy machine is under a new attack and this time the threat comes from a migrating entity. Switzerland’s LzLabs is trying to persuade companies to ditch mainframes and port to Linux and Windows servers on commodity servers. It claims that this will save clients, on average, 90 per cent of the money they spend on licensing.

LzLabs positions itself against the demon 'legacy applications' and promises to liberate companies with the 'software defined mainframe'. It sees this as a multi-billion dollar market opportunity. LzLabs is planning its ambush based on the fact that over 70 percent of the world's commercial transactions run on mainframes. However, history is full of would be disruptors and their stories don’t always end well.

Now mainframe clients are asking themselves if they should we stay with the mainframe. Is that the only way we will be safe and efficient, they ask, or is that just a bunch of ‘Cobolers’ and fear mongering from an ageing franchise?

Many organisations running critical applications are scared of migration but will be attracted by the scale of promised savings. Then there are the counter claims. In 2012 WinterGreen Research claimed that an IBM zEnterprise 114 mainframe works out at about half the price of using a Linux based server. When benchmarking an HP ProLiant DL685 running VMware with the old style mainframe, it found that a suite of web services apps running on 80 HP blade servers cost $127,225 a year. Meanwhile, the ‘legacy’ IBM zEnterprise 114 would set users back only $67,787. The arguments about savings on software licences, made by companies selling against mainframes, didn’t stand up, according to the study.

Still, Zurich-based LzLabs has spent five years creating software that it says will move mainframe applications and data painlessly to Linux and Windows servers and cloud platforms. It claims that more than 3,000 of the world’s largest companies have no escape from expensive and outdated application architectures.

“Increasingly large volumes of traditional mainframe workloads can successfully run on alternative hardware,” analyst Dale Vecchio at Gartner noted in How Will the Mainframe Survive?  But will they survive the journey?

Yes, the customer needs a seamless way to allow the customer’s application code and data to run unchanged in a modern environment, says Thilo Rockmann, chairman of LzLabs. “Lz Labs has worked for five years to build exactly that.”


High hopes

Some have high expectations for the technology.

“I really like LzLabs – I was very impressed with the demo they did for me, and their awareness of the issues that they would need to deal with,” says analyst Clive Longbottom at Quocirca, “but mainframes will still be here long after you and I are dust.”

“IBM is still selling more mainframe MIPS quarter on quarter than ever – this is not due to massive growth in its conventional MVS markets, but from those wanting a massive platform for Linux workloads,” adds Longbottom.

One of LzLabs’s drawbacks might be its target audience. A dyed-in-the-wool mainframe sysadmin is not going to enthuse about moving his or her workload off the beloved mainframe to a Dell server. 

“LzLabs is dealing with religion,” says Longbottom. An easier target, he suggests, would be a new IT manager who is under pressure from the business to create digital transformation change.

“There are plenty of these around. Hopefully enough to make LzLabs a success,” says Longbottom.

However, the mainframe devotees will fight to their dying breaths to maintain a z System in the datacentre. Only when the availability of mainframe skills has become an unavoidable issue will the painful mainframe removal operation be considered, Longbottom says.

Chris O’Malley at Compuware says today’s polyglot programmers could easily pick up mainframe languages. The hard bit, he says, will be developing the right DevOps culture. That’s another story though. Until then, we can continue to enjoy these magnificent beasts, if only through the windows of the glass house. 


ADDENDUM: Here’s some footage of companies keeping mainframes alive.



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