The 'new normal' of mainframes

Mobility, cloud computing may get the attention but it's the mainframes that make the IT world go around. Far from being on its way out the relevance of the mainframe is evolving quickly.

Like it or not, industry leaders like Facebook are shaping consumers’ expectations for all the websites and web applications they interact with. Trends like mobility and cloud computing are driving a seismic shift - where consumers, as opposed to companies and their IT teams, are in control of how, where and when they’ll connect to a company.

Welcome to the “new normal” of IT, which is taking off a lot faster than most anticipated and is forcing companies to completely rethink their IT strategies. Today’s consumers expect websites and applications to just work period - 24×7, via their preferred mode of web access, be it a desktop, tablet or smartphone. And when it doesn’t work, these consumers - who have very little brand loyalty and even less patience - have no qualms about finding a competing product or service elsewhere. 
According to the Aberdeen Group, two seconds or less is the new threshold consumers will wait before growing frustrated and abandoning a slow-performing website or application. Those companies whose IT infrastructures aren’t up to task are putting customer satisfaction, brand image and ultimately revenues squarely on the line.
In this new world, technologies like smartphones and tablets tend to garner a huge amount of attention, for fashion almost as much as function. But they are just one part of an increasingly complex application delivery chain that can extend all the way back to the mainframe. The reality is that, far from being “on the way out,” the mainframe is an increasingly integral and important part of this “new normal”; in fact, its relevance is growing quickly as it supports critical customer-facing applications and processes billions of transactions per day. 

Who’s the customer?

As an industry, we’re at a critical transition point. Part of the “new normal” is a shift in “customers” from internal users to external consumers. For example, application users are no longer limited to internal employees like tellers in a bank. Today, the user is the actual paying consumer - everyday people who may be checking their account balances on their smartphones once or even several times a day. Companies are no longer in control because consumers decide when and how to connect with the bank, and they expect fast, relevant and engaging functionality; they are willing to change whom they do business with very quickly if their interactions with a company’s website don’t live up to their expectations.
Today, the number of times the mainframe is “touched” in the course of a consumer interaction is increasing exponentially. The proliferation of consumers on smartphones places new demands on IT everywhere, but in certain industries like retail, smartphones provide the added advantage of opening a personal marketing channel to customers - the so-called “market of one.” 
Through smartphones, retailers can conduct real-time targeted marketing to individual customers with unparalleled speed, consistency and precision. Many retailers rely on advanced data analytics running on the mainframe to enable this highly individualised target marketing.

Consider also the banking industry: years ago, people checked their account balances maybe once a week, by accessing an ATM or going into the bank and asking a teller. The mainframe “fed” that information to a single user (the teller) one time. Today, many consumers check their account balances via their smartphones, at least once a day if not several times throughout the day. In retail, the mainframe once “fed” product pricing information to store clerks at the point of sale.

Today, consumers themselves may check the price of a product across multiple stores using a smartphone. Also, a typical online order transaction may hit numerous mainframes across several IT environments as the consumer searches product inventory, makes a purchase by entering credit card information and arranges shipment. The net result is that the number of certain types of transactions hitting the mainframe can increase dramatically. And because the mainframe is now part of the application delivery chain, the speed of response has a critical impact on the end-user experience.

In the “new normal” mainframe applications are key to connecting businesses with customers, and the mainframe itself is a pivotal part of the modern application delivery chain. This means IT organisations must integrate new cloud and mobile applications with legacy mainframe applications at a record pace—often in a specialised development environment - while ensuring those applications deliver superior quality and performance.

The looming skills shortage

At the same time, as mainframe applications become more customer-facing, complex and difficult to maintain, the mainframe technology industry faces a critical skills shortage. This puts businesses at risk for costly and reputation-damaging application failures. According to a recent independent research study into mainframe use conducted by Vanson Bourne, 71 percent of CIOs are concerned that the looming mainframe skills shortage will hurt their business. Specifically, CIOs are concerned this will result in increased application risk (58 percent), reduced productivity (58 percent) and more project overruns (53 percent).
Banking at home, paying your credit card provider online and making travel reservations are just a few examples of modern applications powered by mainframe applications. There can be a dark side to the extended enablement of mainframe applications, however. Poor application quality no longer affects company insiders alone; it now affects the customer and can literally translate to multi-million dollar losses if customers are alienated by a poor experience and take their business elsewhere.
To better prepare for the looming skills shortage, businesses using a mainframe must attract top developers and empower them to maximise productivity while maintaining efficiencies gained over the years. This means businesses must give their developers, particularly the newer generation, the tools they need to do their jobs successfully, all while ensuring a smooth knowledge transfer from more-experienced generations and extending the value of existing mainframe investments.
To this end, there can be tremendous value in creating a “bridge” between the newer and less experienced and the more-experienced “veteran” generations of mainframe developers - a modernised, intuitive development environment that increases less experienced developers’ comfort level with the mainframe and makes them happier while shortening their mainframe learning curve,

Navigating the “new normal”

Throughout the years, mainframe systems have maintained their unique niche in supporting some of the most throughput-intensive and business-critical applications around the world. Financial services firms, healthcare providers, government agencies, telecom companies, manufacturers, shipping companies, retailers and other industries all rely on the speed, reliability, security and integrity of the mainframe.

Mainframe applications have changed substantially over the past several years as they interweave with new technologies like mobility and the cloud. It’s never been more important to have the tools and people in place to ensure mainframe applications deliver superior quality and performance. A modern mainframe development approach can be the key to maximising productivity, cost-efficiency and IT and business agility, helping mainframe users succeed in the evolving environment. 

Brett Lightfoot is the field technical services manager, ANZ/Japan at Compuware Asia Pacific. 

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