Debate continues to rage on whether there is actually a severe mainframe skills shortage (if you’re at the coal face of this issue, we’d love to hear from you; get in touch) but recent Forrester research suggests it’s a genuine concern, with organisations losing 23 percent of their skilled mainframe workers in recent years.
Carl Davies, managing director at TmaxSoft UK – a mainframe rehosting specialist – thinks the scale of the threat should not be underestimated, but that a “lift and shift” of mainframe workloads is easier than most people think.
We put a few questions to him.
Which mainframe language skills are hard to get now?
The mainframe supports three primary languages, COBOL, PL/I and C variants, as well as IBM Assembler and JAVA in a mainframe UNIX environment. Most legacy applications are written in COBOL and PL/I, and it is these languages in which there is a diminishing pool of expertise. There is also a range of proprietary 4GL languages for which expertise is disappearing. There is a real mainframe skills shortage.
You’ve Spoken About Mainframe Users Migrating Functions to the Cloud. What’s Your Take on This?
Many CIOs are finding that mainframes are incompatible with the open systems environments that businesses increasingly rely on to achieve competitive advantage, like the cloud, but while they recognise the need for change, making the leap is a different matter.
CIOs have concerns that any kind of change is risky (the “why fix what’s not broken?” mentality), or that years of accumulated data is too intertwined with the company’s monolithic mainframe software applications. But sooner or later, legacy investments in technology become a liability.
Conversion costs rise as competitors with newer tech eat away at your markets. Qualified support personnel may retire or move on, and your old vendors may no longer be available. Businesses that fail to adapt are left without the needed support for their big iron and COBOL or PS/I applications.
Is Mainframe Rehosting an Option?
Rehosting is an option whereby existing mainframe applications move unchanged to a modern open system, such as multi-tiered, SQL-based x86 environment, or the cloud. Each has its own advantages. Rehosting to an x86 system results in lower capital expenditure in the long term: Newer systems result in lower purchase costs and have reduced space, power and cooling requirements over their lifetimes.
Cloud-based architectures are certainly possible and offer tremendous flexibility. Almost all forms of processing are now moving to open systems made possible by the cloud. For example a IBM mainframe uses proprietary IBM hardware, IBM OS, IBM middleware and third-party products written for the mainframe platform alone.
Most other processing is moving toward open systems which are hardware platform-independent and can make use of a variety of open source proprietary OS, middleware utilities and off the shelf applications, the cost of which is being driven down as a result of their ubiquitous nature. Cloud processing costs are also being driven down due to the massive scale at which they are available.
Additionally, operating applications through the cloud opens the door to new services, which can further boost a business’ ability to compete in today’s marketplace.
What are the Biggest Challenges in Migrating Mainframes to Cloud?
Typical migration solutions are high risk and can take years to complete. This is because altering programs and applications can require writing thousands, and in some cases, millions of lines of code, meaning that the scope for error is far-reaching. A failed IT migration can also have a devastating impact on a business, as highlighted by the recent TSB IT meltdown, so many IT departments are highly opposed to undertaking these modernisation projects. There are of course initial challenges of moving from one platform to another.
I’d say that OpenFrame, however, minimises the challenges, risks, effort and cost of moving from the mainframe by minimising changes to applications and middleware during the move. Once established on an open systems platform with OpenFrame it is no more difficult to move to the cloud than with any existing open systems application. The challenges in moving to the cloud from private processing are more related to provisioning and security, completely unrelated to whether OpenFrame is involved.
Re-hosting allows you to access all the benefits of open systems while preserving the integrity of your applications and data, so the risk is minimal. The technology works by simply ‘lifting’ existing mainframe assets and ‘shifting’ them to the cloud, allowing organisations to transition with far greater speed and less effort. However, awareness of these solutions is low, so many decision makers still pursue outdated strategies that put them at significant harm.
Is there Anything Mainframes do that Can’t be Done on Cloud?
No. Everything can be done on the cloud or anywhere else for that matter. To be fair the mainframe does some things very well, its weakness is the proprietary nature of the platform, not its capabilities. As mentioned above, the benefit of moving off the mainframe and perhaps to the cloud are related to the ubiquity of open systems and commodity nature of cloud as opposed to the proprietary nature of the mainframe.
There is nothing wrong with the technical capabilities of the mainframe. There are advantages to moving off the mainframe, but there is inevitably cost, effort and risk to do so. Therefore, a balance must be reached between the cost and return and each customer will find the balance varies, and the time at which to make the move is different. They may well be influenced by the level of mainframe skills shortage they face as well.