Mar 10 2022

3 Options State and Local Agencies Have to Start Moving On from Mainframes

There are several paths IT officials can take to improve legacy computing, whether agencies remain on-premises or adopt cloud services.

Administrators wondering how to get business-critical legacy applications off mainframe computers aren’t alone. A recent survey by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and Accenture revealed some surprising data points: 89 percent of state CIOs surveyed reported still having a mainframe. 

Most IT managers have been trying to migrate off their mainframes for decades, which means this isn’t a new problem to anyone. However, the challenges become more acute every year. Mainframe support staffers are increasingly difficult to hire, hardware is disappearing even from the used marketplace and the architectural limitations of ’90s-era computers are creating performance bottlenecks blocking the delivery of citizen services. 

Budgets are also affected: The slow migration of applications off the mainframe has left a small number of departments paying ever-increasing costs for mainframe services that were formerly amortized across many groups. 

Solutions that have become available in recent years, however, offer options to accelerate this migration.

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1. Mainframe as a Service Offers a Transition Path for Agencies

Mainframe as a Service (MFaaS) isn’t a simple commodity like many Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings but is more customizable and adaptable to individual agency and department needs. Small and medium-sized providers deliver a variety of services aimed at moving applications off in-house data center mainframes. The result is something that approximates the large-scale IaaS or Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings delivered by giants such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, but based on the mainframe hardware and operating system required by legacy applications.

Because MFaaS is modeled after IaaS/PaaS services, it has the same benefits: scalability (within the limits of the hardware), outsourced hardware and software maintenance and upgrades, a high level of fault tolerance, predictable pay-as-you-go costs, and 24/7 support. 

State IT managers looking at MFaaS services should ensure that suppliers are prepared to deliver a standardized IaaS (bare hardware) or better PaaS (hardware plus operating system) offering, provisioned so that each application is managed separately. 

It’s best to reject offers to do a full “lift and shift” of the mainframe workload as a single line item, even if the costs are somewhat lower, and instead focus on writing subcontracts for application-specific partitions or hosting. When these divisions are drawn carefully, migrating to MFaaS makes the case for replacing legacy applications much clearer, as there is an easy-to-see budget line item for hosting each application, which makes the continuing costs very transparent. 

RELATED: Find out how three states have moved on from their mainframes.

2. Mainframe Hardware Emulation Makes It Easier to Run Legacy Apps

While mainframe conjures images of enormous data centers with single systems taking up multiple cabinets for CPU, memory, disk and tape subsystems, the reality is that modern hardware delivers performance much higher than many legacy mainframe systems. The older the mainframe, the more likely it is that hardware emulation on current 64-bit x86 architecture systems can be used to run legacy workloads at acceptable speeds. This lets state IT managers take advantage of commodity hardware, both in their own data centers and in IaaS cloud services. The result is eliminating the cost and risk of running business-critical applications on aging hardware.

Emulation tools exist for every popular mainframe architecture, and range from open-source projects to commercial products — often based on those same open-source projects. With commodity hardware in a data center or a colocation facility or IaaS-provided services in the cloud, some mainframes can be quickly replaced with highly encapsulated emulators. 

While mainframe emulation sounds great, there can be obstacles depending on the hardware and operating system being replaced. For example, new IBM operating systems may be licensed so they cannot be run on third-party hardware, emulated or not. IBM learned that lesson the hard way during the ’90s with Amdahl’s assault on its hardware monopoly, and it has drawn a hard line with customers who have challenged the license terms on zSeries operating systems. Old IBM operating systems and HPE OpenVMS don’t have the same restrictions.

At the same time, state IT managers who have kept up to date with IBM hardware — such as the zSeries, which was last updated only a few years ago — may have a more powerful mainframe that isn’t going to be easily replaced with an emulator running on commodity x86 servers. 

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3. Maintaining Mainframes Is an Option, but Should Be Reevaluated 

Mainframe computing with legacy applications, obsolete architectures and unsupported operating systems should definitely be on the short list for any state IT department to tackle. However, IBM in particular has built a huge ecosystem of technologies to try to marry 21st-century computing to an installed base of applications in COBOL, PL/I, Fortran and other aging languages and database systems. If budgets support it, IBM happily sells hardware, operating system updates and a wide variety of tools to glue together everything from security to Linux and untouchable legacy applications. 

State IT managers can count on IBM and a small third-party marketplace continuing to deliver premium products and services to help extend the life of mainframe-based applications. The goal of these vendors is not pure survival of the application but keeping it running as a core that then attaches to middleware, modern languages and tools, and extends the life and performance indefinitely. 

Where application migration or replacement is truly an unsurmountable task, IBM will be there to keep things running and to encourage lock-in by delivering tools to add to an existing application environment. Although these vendors couch this process as modernizing mainframe computing, IT managers need a more balanced reality check and an understanding that no amount of add-ons and compatibility plug-ins will change the fundamental nature of mainframe architecture applications. 

A key action item for state IT managers, in this case, is to make a serious evaluation — and continue to re-evaluate every few years — so that only the most untouchable applications are running in a local or MFaaS environment. This ensures that when the untouchable suddenly becomes expendable, there are no other applications creating additional mainframe lock-in.

EXPLORE: Follow these tips to modernize legacy applications.

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