Some say “The mainframe is old.” But old is a misleading term in an industry that seems to measure the passage of time in dog years, writes Darren Roos, senior vice-president: MEA, ETS at Software AG. By the standards of other much larger industries, the mainframe is still young and has a lot to offer.
For example, the combined hardware and software systems that enable the world’s most popular commercial aircraft – the Boeing 737 – to fly safely at over 500mph dwarf in complexity anything found in most modern IT departments (a single, new 737-900ER costs around $75-million). Yet this aircraft design was first flown in 1967, and new, updated versions are still being rolled out of the factory to this day. That’s 40 years and counting. So by IT standards, that would make the Boeing 737 a 280-year-old design (I knew there was a reason that I prefer to take the train).
Then what does old really mean? Old is a comparative term. Next to my child, I am old. Next to a 100-foot redwood tree I am an infant. What if, at the time the Apple Macintosh was introduced in 1984, IBM had quickly found a way to add a sexy GUI to the 3270 terminal and provided a mouse-like contraption as another input device alongside the keyboard? Would the mainframe still have seemed old to those who used it? Would enterprises have ever embraced client-server computing? Who knows?
But certainly the repeating pattern of pitting old against new in the IT department is unhelpful and even counterproductive. Over and over, IT organisations divide their staff into team’s based on past versus present, old versus new, boring versus fun, and above all evil (that would be Cobol and CICS on the mainframe) versus good (that would be Java and Linux on the server du jour).
While this internal rivalry might seem to the “new” team like a bit of healthy competition, it actually creates a negative work environment. People who support the so-called legacy systems are continually defending themselves against the hip, cool kids. That atmosphere can lead to unnecessary tensions.
On the other hand, the teams who develop new innovations, while bringing along the old, have the most satisfying culture. That is the pattern that deserves to be repeated. It’s not old versus new — it’s old plus new. Great results can often be achieved by building something new on top of a proven foundation.
After all, that is what Boeing did. The modern 737-900 shares a number of design elements with its 40-year-old predecessor. But it also includes thousands of innovations and changes that have resulted from decades of fine tuning. Whereas the first versions had WW2-style analogue cockpit gauges, the new version incorporates the latest programmable LCD glass cockpit, and so on.
Here’s a radical thought. What if an IT department decided that it already owned enough new technology and focused instead on getting the maximum value from the current stuff? It made me age a few dog years just thinking about that.