The Mainframe Turns 60: A Milestone in Computing History

60 years can really fly by! On April 7, 2024, the Mainframe will turn 60. At this milestone, we should all reflect on what the mainframe has done to the computing industry. What would the world look like without it? What is the current state of the mainframe? And what is its future? This post will touch on these points and give us all a chance to celebrate the mainframe at 60 years.

The World without the Mainframe

How important is the mainframe to the world today? Let’s look at some statistics from IBM:

  • Mainframes are used by 71% of Fortune 500 companies.
  • Mainframes handle 90% of all credit card transactions.
  • 4 out of the top 5 airline companies use mainframe systems
  • Mainframes handle 68% of the world’s production IT workloads, yet they account for only 6 percent of IT costs.

With those statistics in mind, what would the world look like without the mainframe? Most Fortune 500 companies would not operate – there would be no credit card transactions, the majority of the top airlines would not fly, and most IT workloads would stop.

In other words, a world without the mainframe is a world that simply doesn’t work – we need the mainframe!

The Mainframe Continues to be Essential

Mainframe usage continues to rise. According to the 2024 Forrester report, Select the Best Mainframe Modernization Approach for your Enterprise, it was found that, “Among global infrastructure hardware decision-makers, 61% said that their firm uses a mainframe. Of those that use mainframes, 54% indicated that their organization would increase its use of a mainframe over the next two years”.

Omdia research states, “Mainframes still matter today: while IBM is the last remaining mainframe manufacturer of significance in the market, according to its 2022 annual report, 45 of the world’s top 50 banks run on IBM zSystems. Furthermore, IBM says mainframes are used by 71% of Fortune 500 companies, handle 68% of the world’s production IT workloads, and process 90% of all credit card transactions. Moreover, mainframes have top reliability, with uptime of 99.999% (down 5 minutes 13 seconds per year) to 99.9999% (down 31 seconds per year).”

And, finally, IDC recently surveyed 800 companies worldwide using mainframe systems and found that when asked about the attitudes of organizations in regard to their mainframe systems, 68 percent of respondents indicated that “mainframes are strategic to our overall business success, and we are committed to long-term investment in this area.”

The above examples show that the Mainframe continues to be the engine of many organizations. It is the backbone of IT infrastructure for organizations large and small, across various industries around the globe. And even though the market continues to push to the cloud, the mainframe continues to go strong – and it will continue to have a place in computing well into the future.

The Future of the Mainframe

In today’s fast-changing digital economy, organizations face a stark choice: innovate or risk obsolescence. While the mainframe has stood the test of time – and will continue to grow – it too must adapt to stay relevant. The Futurum Group’s whitepaper “How Mainframe Modernization Begins with Application Modernization” states, “[New] trends and requirements have led enterprise IT leaders to mainframe modernization, where new technologies allow them to continue using mainframes while bringing in modern tools to replatform applications to run on standard hardware that leverages coding languages, processes, and technologies that better align with business requirements. This approach leads to application modernization, offering enterprises the best of both worlds: the reliability of their core mainframes and the flexibility of modern applications on commodity hardware to take advantage of new capabilities.”

So, what is the future of the mainframe? Modernization! Mainframe organizations must make decisions now on how they will modernize the mainframe. This does not mean that organizations should abandon the mainframe – far from it. Organizations need to modernize in ways that best fit their needs. When modernizing the mainframe, there are some things to remember:

  1. Modernization isn’t one-size-fits-all. Each organization’s journey will be unique. Some options include:
    • Full Cloud Migration: Transitioning the mainframe entirely to the cloud.
    • Hybrid Approach: Migrating some applications to the cloud while retaining others on the Mainframe.
    • Modernizing in Place: Keeping applications and data on the Mainframe while modernizing. Some examples being, optimizing mainframe usage, using the mainframe alongside modern applications, and integrating mainframe processes with automation.
  2. It can be expensive. According to another 2024 Forrester report, “All paths forward are expensive. Staying on mainframes isn’t cheap — and neither is getting off them. Some organizations have reportedly spent more than $100 million to migrate off their mainframe systems. Costs include standing up new cloud platforms and services, transitioning operational talent, rearchitecting applications, and integrating. For many companies, a cost-benefit analysis can paralyze any change to the status quo.”
  3. Mainframe modernization is a continuous journey, it’s not just a destination that is reached after following a list of steps. Organizations need to continuously modernize to meet the ever-changing needs of the business.
  4. Host access can be a key to modernization. According to IDC, “traditional host platforms are well suited to play a pivotal role in businesses’ digital transformation, becoming the connected hub through which transformation enables new ways of monetization of the core enterprise applications and data.”

Celebrating 60 Years of Resilience

In summary, the mainframe is not going anywhere. It is here to stay. Someone, 60 years from now, will write a blog post about the mainframe celebrating 120 years (it won’t be me; I will be way too old by then). Continued investment in the mainframe will pay off and modernization efforts are key to making sure that the mainframe stays relevant.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate the mainframe turning 60 this year; let’s recognize its unwavering contribution to our digital landscape. It’s not just about the past—it’s about the future. The mainframe with its reliability, scalability, and security, will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the world of computing. And yes, that blog post celebrating 120 years of mainframe is almost certainly a given.

For more information about the mainframe, or mainframe modernization, review these resources:

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