Jun 24 2020

What Is Mainframe as a Service for State Governments?

Mainframe as a Service via external providers offers some state governments enhanced staffing, budgeting and other capabilities.

Offering efficient, reliable and powerful data-processing capabilities, mainframe computing systems have been used to run state government applications and process large amounts of data for decades.

While traditionally the systems have been managed in-house by staff IT members, in recent years, some states have instead opted to utilize a Mainframe as a Service model, in which a third-party vendor provides the infrastructure, support and maintenance.

Mainframe as a Service allows state governments to tap into external, cloud-provided mainframe management services. The model can potentially help states reduce the costs associated with the energy and physical space mainframe machines require, and help alleviate some of the challenges state governments face trying to find qualified professionals who can operate the mainframe.

State central IT authorities cited staffing issues as the second-biggest reason they were considering moving applications off the mainframe in a 2018 National Association of State Technology Directors survey.

“A lot of staff at the state level who work on mainframe systems are retiring pretty quickly; it’s more difficult to recruit and retain the skill sets you need to operate mainframe platforms,” says Pat Snow, CTO of South Dakota and past NASTD president. “It’s equally as difficult to find folks that will either maintain applications or build new ones. The ‘as a service’ model releases some of those pressures.”

What Is Mainframe as Service?

When Gordon Knopp came on board as CIO and director of Wyoming’s Department of Enterprise Technology Services in March 2019, a number of departments within the state had already switched from using items on its mainframe to off-the-shelf platforms or software that involved other infrastructure.

The two remaining departments with ties to the mainframe — the Department of Transportation and the Department of Family Services — were in the process of transitioning their systems off-premises to be managed by IBM. The transition allowed the government to avoid costly renovations to the space where the state’s mainframe was housed that would’ve been necessary to meet new federal regulatory requirements, Knopp says.

“My predecessors weighed the pros and cons of putting capital investment into fixing the physical imprint of the environment and upgrading hardware, knowing agencies were looking for ways to get off of that hardware,” he says. “They felt an ‘as a service’ platform would be a more viable option. We would be dealing with somebody who has all those boxes checked; we wouldn’t have to buy that hardware or lay out a capital expense for a short period of time.”

Variable expenses such as software and maintenance can be less of an issue. The new structure, Knopp says, offered stronger cost-projection capabilities.

“It’s more of a known budget item,” Knopp says. “You can say, ‘This is the dollar amount for the next three years.’”

READ MORE: Find out how state governments have addressed legacy IT in a time of crisis.

The Benefits of Mainframe as a Service

Mainframe management providers offer continuous service, which can help quickly quell any issues that arise, particularly after hours when an onsite IT staff member might otherwise have to address them. External providers can also supply on-demand services as they’re required.

That can be a critical need for many state governments, who may be asked to meet new legislative or other requirements within a short time frame, according to John MacMillan, CIO of Pennsylvania, which has been using cloud-based managed mainframe support services since 2014.

“One of the great benefits of external service providers is their ability to bring the right skills to manage the technical environment, prevent problems and resolve them quickly,” MacMillan says. “You need to pick an organization that understands the public sector dynamic — that things are going to change, and you might not have the budget until July, when something is announced. Flexibility and advocacy are key elements in the business relationship.”

While some states may opt to contract an external provider to handle all mainframe-related work, others have favored a hybrid mainframe model — which can help maximize their internal workforces’ time, Snow says, and potentially enhance their level of disaster protection, if their service providers’ data centers are spread across the country.

IBM mainframe

Mainframe as a Service offers states continuous service from IT staff, and can also supply on-demand services as they’re required. Source: Agiorgio/Wikimedia Commons

“You are seeing that as a pretty common practice, keeping some in-house, but moving certain components to a service provider,” Snow says. “A hybrid structure is a little less risky sometimes because it allows you to get into the environment and get the ball rolling, and strategically move things as contracts are up or it makes sense to.”

If states opt for a partial Mainframe as a Service structure when moving mainframe applications to cloud systems, they’ll likely want to confirm that solutions remaining on their mainframe will be able to access critical information from the solutions they relocate.

“For example, there are some use cases where you may have data collected by your social services department that’s being used by your correctional department for various reasons,” Snow says. “It’s not just about picking an application up and moving it. If you re-platform it into an ‘as a service’ structure, you still have to maintain activity or usages from other applications. They can be all over the place and undocumented sometimes; moves can become challenging for that reason.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: What does software-defined everything mean for state governments?

Migrating from a Mainframe to the Cloud

Historically, the thought process around mainframe extinction has partially been based on cost, according to MacMillan. Yet outsourcing has provided greater potential control over that and other aspects of mainframe use that might have deterred states from using mainframe technology.

“For the entirety of my career, the conversation about the existence of mainframe has been a persistent topic,” MacMillan says. “Yet it’s not really happening.”

Reliance on related service providers, in fact, seems to be on the upswing. While 53 percent of survey respondents said their state’s current mainframe strategy involved managing things in-house, only 18 percent indicated their state was moving toward using that structure in the future.

Twenty-eight percent of state IT authorities reported they today utilize an either fully outsourced or a hybrid mainframe mode; 61 percent, though, say their state appears to be headed toward one of those options.

The considerable stalwartness the technology offers remains a strong selling point for state governments, according to Mark Smith, COO in Ohio’s Office of Information Technology, who says his state’s mainframe rose to the occasion when Ohio recently experienced an unprecedented wave of unemployment benefit requests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The mainframe held up well,” Smith says. “Mainframe technology is rock-solid. That’s a great advantage of it: It is powerful, it’s stable.”

Regardless, in Ohio, as in other states, a number of agencies have opted for solutions that leverage open systems like Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services instead of the mainframe when they’ve made system upgrades, according to Smith.

IBM mainframe

Ohio currently internally manages all usage aspects of its IBM-leased z13 mainframe, seen in an example phoot here, and has been thinking through how to scale its mainframe services. Source: Agiorgio/Wikimedia Commons

“We’re really reacting to where the market is for the software solutions,” he says. “Most are not coming forward to be placed on the mainframe.”

As a result, the state, which currently manages all aspects of its IBM-leased z13 mainframe use internally, has been meeting with its agencies to discuss what workload needs they’ll have over the next roughly five years to determine how it should scale its mainframe services.

External management of its mainframe, Smith says, is one option that’s on the table.

“As I’m sure most places are finding, there’s not a lot of new development coming to the mainframe; it’s mostly either keeping legacy applications working as is, or in some cases, making improvements to those systems,” he says. “We’re asking whether we move to another mainframe, switch to Mainframe as a Service or find an alternative. One thing from our initial results is clear: There will still be a demand for mainframe-grade computing — our challenge is just to identify where will that occur.”

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