David Linthicum highlights some interesting research about mainframes and their continuation in a cloud era.
I think David is right that mainframes may be one of the last internal components to be switched off and that in 5 years most of them will still be around. I also think, however, that the shift to cloud models may have a better chance of achieving the eventual decommissioning of mainframes than any previous technological advance. Hear me out for a second.
All previous new generations of technology looking to supplant the mainframe have essentially been slightly better ways of doing the same thing. Whilst we’ve had massive improvements in the cost and productivity of hardware, middleware and development languages essentially we’ve continued to be stuck with purchase and ownership of costly and complex IT assets. As a result whilst most new development has moved to other platforms the case for shifting away from the mainframe has never seriously held water. Whilst redevelopment would generate huge expense and risk it would result in no fundamental business shift as a result. Essentially you still owned and paid for a load of technology ‘stuff’ and the people to support it even if you successfully navigated the huge organisational and technical challenges required to move ‘that stuff’ to ‘this stuff’. In addition the costs already sunk into the assets and the technology cost barriers to other people entering a market (due to the capital required for large scale IT ownership) also added to the general inertia.
At its heart cloud is not a shift to a new technology but – for once – genuinely a shift to a new paradigm. It means capabilities are packaged and ready to be accessed on demand. You no longer need to make big investments in new hardware, software and skills before you can even get started. In addition suddenly everyone has access to the best IT and so your competitors (and new entrants) can immediately start building better capabilities than you without the traditional technology-based barriers of entry. This could lead to four important considerations that might eventually lead to the end of the mainframe:
- Should an organisation decide to develop its way off the mainframe they can start immediately without the traditional need to incur the huge expense and risk of buying hardware, software, development and systems integration capability before they can even start to redevelop code. This removes a lot of the cost-based risks and allows a more incremental approach;
- Many of the applications implemented on mainframes will increasingly be in competition with external SaaS applications that offer broadly equivalent functionality. In this context moving away from the mainframe is even less costly and risky (whilst still a serious undertaking) since we do not need to even redevelop the functionality required;
- The nature of the work that mainframe applications were set up to support (i.e. internal transaction processing across a tight internal value chain) is changing rapidly as we move towards much more collaborative and social working styles that extend across organisational boundaries. The changing nature of work is likely to eat away further at the tightly integrated functionality at the heart of most legacy applications and leave fewer core transactional components running on the mainframe; and
- Most disruptive of all, as organisations increasingly take advantage of falling collaboration costs to outsource whole business capabilities to specialised partners, so much of the functionality on the mainframe (and other systems) becomes redundant since that work is no longer performed in house.
I think that the four threads outlined here have the possibility to lead to a serious decline in mainframe usage over the next ten years.
But then again they are like terminators – perhaps they will simply be acquired gradually by managed service providers offering to squeeze the cost of maintenance, morph into something else and survive in a low grade capacity for for some time.