Mainframe: Should it stay or should it go?

Organizations running core business systems on mainframes are weighing when and if to migrate off of them

An IT manager in a telecommunications company recently told me that he is waging a major battle over the mainframe. It seems that the high-level executives in IT (along with the company's CIO) have been singing a familiar song: "The Mainframe Has Got to Go." The execs are principally concerned with three things:

- The costs associated with maintaining mainframe hardware and software.

- The long-term availability of packaged software currently running on the mainframe.

- The long-term availability of labor for mainframe applications.

This battle -- or heated discussion -- is taking place at many large companies today. Organizations that are running core business systems on mainframes are weighing when and if to migrate off of them.

If they do decide to migrate, these projects are guaranteed to be large, expensive and overwhelming from a business change perspective. Midrange systems vendors and software companies are stirring the pot by talking up the benefits of things like server virtualization and service-oriented architecture (SOA).

The telecom company IT manager is not in denial. He recognizes that the mainframe -- eventually -- will have to go. He just questions whether now is the right time. Here's his response to the executives' concerns.

- Certainly, mainframes are expensive when compared with midrange systems. However, the mainframe is all about economies of scale.

So once you're using mainframes, adding more MIPS is actually fairly attractive from a cost point of view. That's the case in this company. It owns one of the machines outright and has so many mainframe MIPS that the cost of adding more is quite competitive.

- Many of the applications the company is running on the mainframe are Cobol-based; they're used to do things such as customer billing. The money this company has already sunk into buying, tuning, tweaking and maintaining these applications runs well into the billions of dollars. Though these applications might not have been elegant initially, at this point and in this company, they are actually quite functional and stable.

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