Mainframes in the Era of Mobility

The recent explosion of mobile applications has dramatically altered the consumer landscape, making it the norm for users and customers alike to expect access and support anytime, anywhere. With Cisco recently reporting that mobile-connected devices are set to exceed the world’s population this year, it’s no surprise that the surge is overflowing into the enterprise. While there are a few leading innovators in enterprise mobility, the vast majority of businesses are still struggling to take the first steps towards a streamlined strategy. The question is no longer “Do we?” but “How do we?”

If done strategically, enterprise mobility is an opportunity to extend market reach, but it’s not without some risk. The resources required and the additions to IT infrastructure often weigh the enterprise down with high costs and performance strains on existing operations. While these newly developed applications may appear far from traditional, they in fact rely on one of the most traditional aspects of IT infrastructure – the mainframe.

In order to provide a valuable function, mobile applications need to access core business functions and data housed in mainframes. With maintenance costs of the mainframe continuing to grow, organizations must seek a strategy to add new mobile capabilities cost-effectively without endangering functioning IT systems or depleting current performance levels.

Assessment of the IT Portfolio

To develop any sort of viable solution to the mobility challenge, it is first important to truly understand the current IT portfolio. A comprehensive view of your IT environment, based on application portfolio management (APM) technologies will reveal more useful insights than simple analysis of a single application on its own. Only then will you be prepared to decide which applications to address to cut costs and accommodate new mobile applications or other innovations. Indeed, you may even find ways to streamline activity using this insight – a major U.S. bank examined one area of its portfolio in preparation for a legislative compliance project and identified 40% of the code, and therefore 40% of the maintenance effort, was redundant. The bank was able to instantaneously slash costs, meaning the modernization effort paid for itself immediately.

But this view must be accompanied with clarity around the purposes and value of each application and their interactions. As such, IT analysis should incorporate a range of metrics concerning all IT assets. While a surface view may flag certain legacy applications for their age, a deeper dive would reveal the great value they often hold as a competitive differentiator. Additionally, a holistic view will uncover redundancies and dependencies among applications. These actionable insights will direct the organization as to which applications can be removed, innovated or modernized.

For CIOs and IT departments, having an accurate knowledge of the mainframe environment provides clarity around customer demand, operating costs, application value, staffing levels and system dependencies. As a stand-alone IT initiative, APM frees up resources across the enterprise. In instances that are specifically geared towards integrating mobile applications, a clear APM strategy is imperative to make informed decisions looking at all of the pieces of the puzzle.

Re-Use IT Infrastructure

To help manage the cost of the mobile strategy, organizations can look to re-use as much current functioning IT resource as possible in mobile application delivery. Many organizations are tempted to build applications from the ground up, but the costs and complications can be astronomical, especially in cases where back-end systems are being rewritten for the sake of new mobile interfaces. Typically, existing back-end core systems provide the business functionality needed, so it is merely a case of establishing an integration layer between the new mobile applications and the back-end processes that can support them. Although some scenarios may require rewriting or building anew, re-use should be pursued whenever possible to avoid complicating already complex IT tasks and incurring high costs.

Comcast Washington, a subdivision of the leading communication company and cable service provider, faced a situation in which agents were unable to efficiently manage customer service calls because the mainframe-hosted customer service applications did not have access to service availability data housed on a GIS system. This disconnect resulted in decreased customer satisfaction and loss of potential subscribers. In the face off this business dilemma, Comcast Washington needed a solution that would improve workflow efficiency and connect customer services applications to the necessary data – without breaking the bank or wasting time.

In this case, they chose a robust integration platform that fuses mainframe data with external applications. By adding this layer, Comcast Washington was able to utilize the otherwise functioning infrastructure already in place. The additional platform successfully integrated the external customer service application into day-to-day business operations, and, most importantly, it did so without any risk to the integrity of the existing systems.  Customer service agents saw quick deployment and great ease of use. A drag-and-drop tool allows them to view the application on the mainframe and easily navigate to the customer information they need. For Comcast, the project directly translated into easy integration and reduced mainframe maintenance costs.

Across the board, a key benefit of modernizing applications through re-use is the savings – including the time, people and financial resources needed to work towards supporting new IT initiatives, such as cloud and mobile device management. For mainframe applications that are built on original COBOL code, there is an easy path towards reuse. The highly portable nature of the language makes it easy for it to be reused elsewhere in the IT portfolio. As new business needs arise, COBOL applications can adapt to new deployment architectures and emerging technologies. Businesses have been able to deploy COBOL systems onto dozens of environments including .NET, Linux, JVM, Windows, UNIX and Cloud – ensuring that modernization projects through rehosting applications are almost always applicable as an alternative to the costly rewrites.

Independent of language or environment choice, modernizing through reuse and utilizing the freed resources, businesses are able to future-proof IT systems and ensure efficiency, cost-savings and innovation moving forward.

Streamline the Mainframe Workload

A comprehensive mobile strategy will, inevitably, demand more processing and throughput in the business, including on the mainframe, which will incur cost. In order to enable the mainframe to cope with projected new workload for mobile apps, the organization can look at discrete, lower-value mainframe workloads that can be moved to a lower-cost operating environment. By selecting appropriate applications to rehost, IT can reduce the system strain without losing the business benefits of the mainframe, thereby freeing up space for the additional capacity the new mobile applications will require. 

Recently, Owens & Minors, Inc., a healthcare supply chain management company, found itself in a tricky mainframe situation. The company relies on its’ highly competitive business logic to provide exceptional customer service and support. As such, it could not risk taking any action that would jeopardize it and thus its biggest competitive advantage. Concurrently, the organization was eager to continue driving innovation and business growth – it just needed to reduce costs that could then be reinvested.

To address the situation, Owen & Minors looked to modernize its ERP system. The organization estimated that a rewrite or replacement project would incur costs of between $100 million - $200 million, while also putting the systems unique business logic at risk. Instead, they moved forward with a modernization approach to migrate the ERP systems from the mainframe to a Microsoft Windows and SQL server. The rehosting project garnered significant savings by both forestalling future costs and reducing annual maintenance costs. As a result, the savings were funneled into a technology innovation project for customer service improvements and overall business growth.

The business case for mainframe rehosting is compelling, as doing so can reduce MIPS usage and operating costs significantly. Depending on the size of applications and activities being rehosted, savings will rise proportionately – in some cases delivering organizations a saving of up to 90% of the initial IT budget. While organizations such as KCS Railroad were able to take 90% of their IT budget off the books by rehosting their whole mainframe environment, other companies choose to rehost specific parts of their mainframe workload, yielding considerable savings as well as streamlining key parts of their IT operation. For example, Banco Espirito Santo (BES) in Portugal projected savings of over $3 milllion per year simply by rehosting select parts of its mainframe testing activities. Ultimately, organizations can save money and capacity, which can then be made available to support mobile initiatives, by simply identifying key bottlenecks and then removing them with lower cost contemporary technology in place of expensive mainframe MIPS.

Mobile applications are not to be ignored in today’s business environment, but the associated risks cannot be ignored either. The potential IT burden should play a significant role in the enterprise’s decision-making process. By reusing what works, and by running systems where they add the most value, businesses can remove the pressure on the mainframe capability and enter the mobile world with full confidence. The innovation that follows will prove invaluable as companies strive to not only adapt, but to excel in the evolving world of enterprise mobility.

About the author:

Derek Britton is solutions marketing director for application modernization and management provider Micro Focus.