A Mythical Phoenix: Mainframe’s Evolution


Mainframes are the backbone of many systems across the globe. Nearly everyone comes into contact with the mainframe at some point, whether depositing or withdrawing money from their bank or booking an airplane ticket. Reg Harbeck, SHARE member and chief strategist at Mainframe Analytics Ltd., says mainframes are similar to the mythical phoenix. “An interesting thing about the phoenix is that, in its inevitable rising after it burns into ashes, it shows that it has a deeper reality that cannot be overcome by being ‘sunsetted’ in its symbolism of the setting and rising sun. This is similar to a favorite mainframe customer quote of mine about their mainframe systems: ‘We started sunsetting this thing so long ago that the sun’s coming back up again,” he goes on to explain, “And just like how the sun never actually goes away when it sets, the phoenix returns from its ashes as the same bird it already was. Similar to the IBM System/360-descended mainframe, now 55 years old, and which has often been called dead, it continues to be the computational foundation of the world economy, while our awareness of it and willingness to build new business activities on it is what actually comes and goes.”

Despite rumors over the last roughly 25 years that the mainframe is dead, it continues to be relevant today, adapting to technology and business changes over the course of its life. Craig Mullins, president and principal consultant at Mullins Consulting, Inc. explains, “I think the mainframe has not only adapted to the changing technology world, but it has done so rapidly and adeptly. The perception that the mainframe is old technology still lingers, but that is due mostly to bad press and the lack of education in those who make that assertion. The mainframe is a modern platform for enterprise computing.”

Greg Lotko, senior vice president and general manager of the mainframe division at Broadcom Inc. (formerly CA), sees the mainframe less as a phoenix and more like the “Energizer Bunny,” noting that “while pundits kept predicting its demise, it never did die.” He adds, “It was more of a continuous investment and reinvention (both in hardware and software across the ecosystem) that has made it keep going, while always preserving the ability to run applications, middleware and workloads built on earlier generations.”

More Than 50 Years of Innovation

Since the introduction of the System/360 in 1964, the mainframe has had to roll with changes in technology, and those changes are not slowing down.

Mullins explains that the mainframe adapted, migrating from SNA to TCP/IP for networking. While COBOL remains the predominant language for applications on the platform, IBM has added support for newer technologies, like Java® and Node.js. In fact, IBM has enabled interoperability between programs written in COBOL and Java® to allow these applications to continue to be enhanced using these newer technologies. For example, the latest IBM Z upgrade, the z14, delivers pervasive encryption, more flexible pricing options, increased performance and capabilities for analytics and machine learning.

In addition, the mainframe is considered one of the most secure systems, thanks in part to its technology, as well as “to the procedures and protocols put in place to manage the mainframe,” says Mullins. “Mainframe shops have focused security professionals whose job is to implement security (using products like RACF, ACF2, and TSS). ” However, he says, resource protection products are not sufficient to protect a computing platform. “Many organizations are implementing additional protective measures, such as improved auditing software, trusted contexts for application servers, and improved database security measures like label-based access control and data masking.” In IBM’s z/OS, for instance, they system constantly cuts system management facilities’ (SMF) records to enable granular self-measurement of computing resources and throughput, which offers a granular level of access controls to businesses.

“But the mainframe does not leave the old behind. That COBOL program you wrote in the 1960s (well, maybe ‘you’ didn’t write it) will still run on the mainframe today. Can you say that about that PC application you wrote on MS-DOS in the 1980s,” says Mullins.

Harbeck adds, “While the mainframe technology does indeed continue to advance in ways that keep getting renewed attention from decision makers as the only platform able to handle the highest-capacity and -security workloads, it is really the business awareness of the mainframe’s value and potential that has temporarily gone down and is now ready to come back up again.” As the industry moves to mobile and cloud, mainframes continue to adapt again to the changes brought by the collaborative innovations that open source can facilitate. This community, working on the same product at the same time, can speed technological advancement.

Lotko says, “It’s just that some have tried to imagine the bunny (the mainframe) doesn’t exist; then when they see it again, they think, ‘oh, it died and was resurrected.’ Nope, it just kept going and going and going, while getting better and better!”

One Challenge Facing the Mainframe

Over the last six decades, the mainframe has adapted to the latest technological changes, but the perception that it is outdated technology persists. Mullins, however, says the sector’s most pressing issue is not how it is perceived, but the aging workforce and dearth of qualified mainframe professionals. He says many young information technology (IT) professionals choose to specialize in the latest technologies, such as Linux to open source projects, but the reality is that most of the “newer” technologies are compatible with the mainframe.

“There are twenty-somethings out there who are working on mainframes; they are just a bit hard to find. Of course, we need more, and zNextGen, a user-driven community at SHARE (with over 1,000 members), is doing its part to mold the young mainframer of tomorrow, today,” Mullins explains. At SHARE, Lotko adds, “You can find people who have worked on the platform for more than 50 years sitting right next to those who have been working on it for 50 days. What they have in common is the desire to be working on mission-critical enterprise technologies that deliver real, lasting value to the world, versus being seduced by chasing the latest flash in the pan.”

SHARE, like the phoenix and the mainframe, continues to grow and evolve. “New innovations, from Linux on the mainframe to broad and deep analytics, to comprehensive security including pervasive encryption, continue to make the mainframe the one place where excellence in business IT is widespread,” explains Harbeck. “At each step of this journey, mainframe professionals have built on the culture and practices and insights and experiences of the past, taking on new responsibilities and knowledge and capacities as they have kept the IBM System/360-descended mainframe at the forefront of global IT. And the best of them have been involved with SHARE as they continued to build their participation and mentor others in the mainframe ecosystem.”