Just as every generation of children thinks it knows best, and its parents are dinosaurs who got it all wrong, so the new computer kids rebelled against the mainframe, and had us believe it was just waiting around to die. The last few years must have been difficult for a company like Amdahl Corp, a mainframe computer supplier that diversified into software for mainframes, and finally to software that can be developed and run on mainframes as well as Unix and Windows personal computers, at a time when so many were saying the mainframe was dead. But Amdahl’s Joe Zemke, president and chief executive, knew the children would see sense eventually, and says he was waiting until the tide turned again. Mainframes and legacy systems are terms used with some derision by the new wave kids on the block, so Zemke decided Antares Alliance Group, Amdahl’s joint venture with Electronic Data Systems Corp, should keep its head beneath the parapet until what he calls the second wave of sadder but wiser users arrived on the screne. This second wave will have been through the client-server loop, and discovered that it does have limitations, that very large chunks of data with thousands of transactions to process do benefit from being held in one place on one powerful mainframe, and that a legacy may contain some genuine jewels that need preserving.
Zemke, who admits to having been in the computer business for more than 30 years, said client-server has been liberating and invigorating, but now people are seeing the need to scale up again. He said he’d always been confident that the day would come when a tool like Huron ObjectStar, an object-based rapid application development environment originally developed by Amdahl (CI No 1,641) and then taken on by the Antares Alliance, would be welcomed by companies that had retained legacy mainframe systems but had also moved on to client-server. Three such companies are retail chain Marks & Spencer Plc, car manufacturer Peugot Citroen Group and South Africa’s largest life insurance company Old Mutual. Each of these companies has a massive network of mainframes, Unix servers and Windows personal computers, and each has not only major investment in so-called legacy systems, but recognises that for processing huge amounts of data there is no substitute for the mainframe, and nor will there be in the foreseeable future. Each company is in a high-volume, fast-moving, customer-driven business, and not only has to maintain existing computer systems but has constantly to update and add new features to systems. Until June of this year, they were using Huron ObjectStar to develop mainframe and server applications throughout the organisation, and said they were eagerly awaiting release 3.0 of the product, now called simply ObjectStar, which was launched in June (CI No 2,701), and added the desktop or client to its mainframe and server offering. Marks & Spencer lays claim to selling 30% of all ladies’ underwear, 2,500 men’s shirts per hour, and to being the largest cut flower seller in the UK. Its stock systems process millions of transactions every night on MVS mainframes, it has client-server merchandising systems, thousands of Windows desk-top computers, and is constantly changing and updating systems to meet its customers demands. John Sacker, Marks & Spencer director responsible for information technology, distribution and retail systems claims that ObjectStar means 55% less effort in systems development and 45% less effort in implementation to Marks & Spencer.
By Joanne Wallen
The real benefits are that developers do not have to be aware of where their programs will sit, mainframe, server or desktop. They can concentrate on working with the end user, rapidly prototyping applications, and modifying them according to the users needs and specifications, Sacker said. Old Mutual’s general manager of services Reg Munro said his company does not have a product like ladies’ underwear or men’s shirts to offer. Computer systems are Old Mutual’s products, he said,
in that the computer record of a life insurance policy may be all that tangibly exists of that policy. Since a life policy is just that, a record could remain on the computer system for 70 or 80 years, and with staff coming and going in that time, the computer holds the only company knowledge about the policy. If that record is on an old mainframe system, it is therefore essential to keep the old systems running alongside the new. Munro said his company needs constantly to bring new products to market as quickly as possible to remain competitve, and also has to respond to ever-changing legislation in the insurance business. Munro says ObjectStar enables systems to be developed very quickly and efficiently, and, most importantly to Old Mutual, securely and robustly. Munro said ObjectStar makes possible what every Information Technology professional knows has always been impossible. Peugot Citroen Group chief information officer Jean-Serge Bertoncini claims that his company has four times the MIPS capacity of Marks & Spencer, although he regretted not selling as many cars per hour as M&S sells shirts. Bertoncini has a pragmatic approach to the mainframe-client-server-desktop debate. He says a company must use these systems in a complementary fashion so as to serve best the needs of the business. For Bertoncini, ObjectStar enables his company’s legacy systems to co-exist with its new systems. His challenge, he says, is to ensure that his team of nearly 900 systems developers spends no more than 40% of its time maintaining legacy systems, and the rest of its time developing new systems that add value to the business. As with Marks & Spencer and Old Mutual, speed to market with these new systems is of the essence, and over the next five years, Bertoncini says, he intends to halve the time a system takes from initial specification to implementation. He believes that ObjectStar will make this possible because the end user can be involved at the earliest stage, designing and viewing prototypes, which can then be very rapidly developed into systems for the whole company. Bertoncini says that many of Peugeot Citroen’s mainframe systems need updating, and using ObjectStar he can isolate bits of the old systems, remove and re-write them, and then re-integrate them without any major upheaval. He is a man who takes his role seriously, believing if a company hands over its information technology to a facilities management company, it’s because the chief information officer has failed. What all these companies agree on is that the mainframe is far from dead, and for large companies such as they are, it will be around for many years to come.
It has its place alongside newer, more flexible architectures, and mission critical business-wide applications have to be developed to run on any hardware available in the company. So now the children can sit at their favourite Windows personal computer developing object-oriented rapid applications with graphical user interfaces and all the latest gizmos, but ones that will run without modification on a mainframe that might have been built before they were born. Which will no doubt be comforting to Amdahl, with 60% of its business still coming from mainframe sales and its CMOS Millennium mainframes launched last month (CI No 2,742), and to Antares, which has yet to make money out of ObjectStar, but which, according to Zemke, should be in the black by next year.