Should Agencies Stick with Mainframes or Ditch Them?

State and local government IT leaders are debating the pros and cons of moving off mainframe technology.

At a time when augmented reality glasses can help firefighters see through smoke and 5G wireless networks deliver blazing-fast speeds, it can be easy to forget the humble mainframe. But should state and local governments do just that, and leave the mainframe behind? 

Mainframes are reliable, secure and fast, notes a 2018 survey from the National Association of State Technology Directors. “They are … efficient and powerful data processors, capable of processing millions of instructions per second (MIPS) for high volume transactions,” the survey notes. “Typical state agencies currently using mainframes to run applications include departments of motor vehicles, social services, finance, accounting, Medicaid eligibility and tax departments.” 

However, as the survey notes, CIOs and their staffers are struggling with whether to keep using mainframes as the workers who can run and manage them begin to retire in waves, and as cheaper and more flexible alternatives open up in the cloud or collocated data centers. 

According to the survey, 53 percent of state IT enterprises reported managing their mainframes in-house, and 18 percent fully outsource the service. The rest reported they used a managed service, either on-premises or off-premises, or have a hybrid solution. However, when asked about future plans, 61 percent of IT leaders said they are looking to fully outsource mainframe support or take a hybrid approach, and only 18 percent said they plan to continue managing their mainframes in-house.

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Why Your Agency Should Stick with Mainframes

Despite those figures, Wisconsin CIO David Cagigal said at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ midyear conference in May that his state is firmly behind mainframe technology and is trying to get a new generation of workers on board to manage them. 

“You are very careful to make sure it works flawless every second of the day, and I mean every second of the day,” Cagigal said of his state’s mainframes, according to StateScoop

Cagigal praised mainframes’ security and reliability as key reasons to stick with the technology. It’s certainly difficult to replicate those features, or the familiarity that comes with using long-running mainframes, overnight. 

Further, Cagigal noted, it would take about a decade to switch to a similarly stable distributed architecture. That’s why many states have chosen to outsource mainframe support, he said, according to StateScoop.

Wisconsin, however, has decided to train interns on the technology in the hopes that they can serve as a new generation of workers capable of handling mainframes. “I wish I could tell you why these kids are interested in the mainframe, other than that it pays a lot of money,” he said. 

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Why Your Agency Should Move Off of Mainframes

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the city of Los Angeles, which is abandoning its old mainframes for an upgraded IT infrastructure. 

In March, the city announced a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the California Department of Technology, with an option to add three additional years, if needed. L.A. will transition data from its mainframe technology, including key public safety workloads, to the CDT’s state data center in Sacramento, Calif. 

L.A. wanted to cut costs by avoiding the replacement of aging IT equipment. According to the CDT, this will save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. The city also notes that it was difficult to recruit younger hires to replace retiring employees to manage its mainframes. 

CDT will offer experienced, 24/7 staffing, hardware support, security and disaster recovery services.

“CDT has sufficient staff and technology resources (hardware/software) to accommodate the city of L.A.’s workload,” CDT spokesman Bob Andosca told Techwire. The state technology agency already provides data center services to counties and municipalities in the Golden State. 

So, since L.A. is getting access to newer hardware, it does not have to go through the process of finding and hiring staff who can manage mainframes, and gets managed services as part of the deal. That all saves costs. 

There are some clear reasons to stay on mainframes, but there are equally compelling ones to move off of them, if your agency can find the right partner in a collocated data center or in the cloud.

This article is part of StateTech's CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.

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Sep 17 2019

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