While mainframes date back to well before the age of ubiquitous Internet usage, they are far from obsolete. In fact, they still play an important role in many organisations and will no doubt be around for the foreseeable future, writes Adrian Risi, Compuware’s regional technical specialist.

Mainframes’ continued relevance is highlighted by Gartner research, which states that 80 percent of the world’s mission-critical applications run on Cobol, while IBM – a major mainframe vendor – estimates that there are 200 billion lines of Cobol code in existence today. In fact, IBM has launched a new generation of mainframes called specialty engines, which run Linux and Java, and are being promoted by the company to the new generation of developers at large overseas universities.
Mainframes will remain a vital part of companies’ information technology (IT) infrastructure because of their ability to deliver the highest quality of service at the lowest total cost per transaction. According to research conducted by Arcati, business systems running on mainframes continue to be the most cost-effective, demonstrating almost a 40% saving compared to deployment on a UNIX platform, and up to 70% saving on deployment on a PC platform. Mainframe costs can be further reduced by tools and services aimed at improving quality, driving efficiencies, introducing proper process and automating mundane processes.
Locally, financial services organisations in particular continue to run major and mission-critical applications on mainframe platforms. A key reason for this is that mainframes are still the only technology to offer true availability, security, manageability, better data recovery and scalability – all in one platform.
Because of these unique advantages, the majority of large companies’ most valuable business information and intellectual property continues to reside on mainframes as opposed to servers. This trend will continue and even grow as mainframe technology continues to improve and businesses continue to gravitate toward centralisation, server and storage consolidation.
IT must therefore continue focusing on reducing mainframe running costs, while addressing additional pressing challenges like improving quality, ensuring that applications meet demanding regulatory requirements and ultimately, align IT with the business strategy to become more agile.
Many mainframe applications developed before the Internet age need to be modified and made more efficient in order to be accessed via the Web. Some 40 percent of all current mainframe projects in South Africa are focused on modifying applications to meet increasing regulations.
Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is becoming vital in making these modifications. Companies are using SOA to build bridges between Cobol, JAVA, Visual Basic and .Net to preserve the strengths of the legacy code and enable a speedy response from technical infrastructure to changing business demands.
The challenge for companies making these modifications is that the average age of Cobol programmers around the world, according to Gartner, is 53. This stat is reflective of the situation in South Africa. Many organizations have lost their Cobol to retirement which results in new code simply being added to the old code by new programmers because they are not always aware of what has been done previously.
Companies therefore have to ensure that current Cobol developers are passing on their deeper knowledge of company-specific Cobol systems to new developers so that the core business functionality can be maintained and altered even when Cobol programmers have moved on.