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Moving On From the Mainframe to Cloud

Should CIOs start getting serious about divesting their big iron estates and prepare for a journey to the cloud?

In July, package delivery giant FedEx announced plans to shut down the last 20% of its mainframes by 2024, relying instead on its cloud-native architecture to run operations.

FedEx CIO Rob Carter said the company's aim is to transition to a "zero data center, zero mainframe" environment, the culmination of a decadelong plan to move away from the mainframe.

An April report from Information Services Group suggests companies migrating from the mainframe to the cloud can leverage advanced analytics, AI, machine learning, and data lakes, but the complexity of such a move has so far been a challenge for the enterprise.

According to Chris Williamson, field CTO with managed services provider FNTS, a combination of factors is driving considerations for a move away from the mainframe to the cloud.

"The economies of moving to the cloud have improved along with the migration patterns required to make a successful transition," he explained. "Cloud ecosystems have also been maturing, adding new features, more partners to assist, and improved connectivity options."

He added that migration partners have enhanced competencies to a point where workload migration is very low risk and a well-choreographed exercise.

"We've found some clients using the mainframe as part of their multicloud strategy, leaving some workloads on the mainframe and then optimizing the performance and cost."

— Chris Williamson, field CTO, FNTS

Finally, Williamson pointed out that many operators are becoming acutely aware of the risks associated with a retiring workforce that is taking their tribal knowledge on platform operations with them.

"We find many clients are coming to our team to replace lost workforce while they make their transition to the cloud and manage it, thereafter," he said. "More recently, we've found some clients using the mainframe as part of their multicloud strategy, leaving some workloads on the mainframe and then optimizing the performance and cost."

Some operators, Williamson said, have found that the mainframe remains the better price/performance option for specific workloads that are resource-intense or have high transactional volume.

Reducing Exposure, Improving Agility With Move Away From Mainframe

Gartner analyst Mike Chuba agrees that for some companies the move away from the mainframe is a skills exposure issue — they don't feel they have a strategy for developing and retaining next-generation talent to replace the "baby-boomer" generation that has supported their mainframe environment for many years.

"For others, it is a desire to be more agile," he said. "That is not to say you can't be agile on the mainframe, but for some organizations that have not made significant investments in their mainframe over the last 5-10 years, they would struggle to get current."

Think of an analogy of a houseowner who has not done basic upkeep for 10-15 years and now needs to spend a lot of money to repair and bring the house up to code.


"For some others, we've seen the CFO dictate that the organization needs to get out of the on-prem data center business and move to the cloud," Chuba added.

Others will cite high costs of acquisition and operations, particularly for distressed industries suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic — but they need to be wary that they don't sacrifice security, availability, reliability, and transactional integrity in the pursuit of lower costs, he said.

"The key factor in their decision is that they believe there is less risk in moving away from the mainframe than staying the course," Chuba said. "Remember that we are talking about, in many cases, the business-critical workloads that are running on the mainframe."

That means the mantra must be first and foremost: Do no harm to those applications, because the business will be critically impacted and, in some case, may not survive if those workloads fail.

Building a Business Case for Migration From Mainframe to Cloud

A mainframe migration impacts many stakeholders across an organization because the mainframe is typically central to a client's technical architecture, according to Williamson.

"While key stakeholders include finance, operations, and technical teams, it's also important to include line-of-business functions, and security and compliance teams, whose future-state business processes may be significantly changed through the migration," he said.

Building a clear business case for change, identifying gaps, and addressing key concerns from these stakeholders is crucial to establishing a shared mission in what is typically a complex and multi-phased transformation.

Chuba cautions these migrations — particularly for those with a large investment in mainframes — are not easy.

"We are talking about 10, 20, 30 years of applications built upon applications — the interdependencies can be quite complex, and peeling them back is like trying to untangle a five-pound pot of cooked linguine noodle by noodle."

— Mike Chuba, analyst, Gartner

"The personnel in many organizations have full-time jobs keeping the status quo running, and there is not a lot of extra resources sitting around available to work on these projects," he said.

That means senior management must commit to putting those resources in place, and that often means working with outside vendors — which means during that transition period, costs may go up.

"Vendors in the migration ecosystem historically overpromised and underdelivered," Chuba said. "Remember as well that we are talking about 10, 20, 30 years of applications built upon applications — the interdependencies can be quite complex, and peeling them back is like trying to untangle a five-pound pot of cooked linguine noodle by noodle."

Without strong levels of C-level multiyear support, there is a risk you end up with one foot in the legacy environment and one in the future environment.

"I had one client recently quip that they are now 17 years in to their first five-year plan to get off the mainframe," Chuba notes.

Considering Migration Risks

Like any complex technical migration, having a clear, current, and detailed picture of how the mainframe is being used and how it integrates into the broader systems architecture is crucial to making a low-risk transition, Williamson said.

"Historically, the mainframe has been the center of a client's technical strategy and has many integration points," he explained.

Another consideration is carefully assessing the future-state security requirements.

"Mainframes have provided a secure and well-understood access framework for many clients, especially in highly regulated industries," Williamson said. "Knowing how this will be addressed in the future state is a key factor in reducing risk."

More Mainframe Migrations Likely

Despite the challenge and complexities, Williamson predicted many organizations will continue to migrate workloads off the mainframe based on compelling business events or through establishing favorable use cases for change.

The ecosystem of migration and managed services partners is growing broader, and the availability of adjacent services for backup and disaster recovery will make further migrations even more compelling for those who haven't made the change yet.

"I also expect organizations that still wish to retain some mainframe workloads over the mid-to-long term will also accelerate their migration to a managed model," he said.

This would allow them to take advantage of reduced capital outlays, cloud-like consumption-based pricing, and the ability to exit the data center and its associated costs.

"In this fashion, clients can capitalize on a multicloud strategy and reduce costs to position themselves for greater agility going forward," Williamson said.

Chuba agrees that the pace of migration will pick up, pointing out that cloud providers such as AWS, Microsoft, and Google are certainly putting more effort in targeting these workloads, and the offerings of the cloud providers get more robust every year.

"But IBM is not standing idly by and is doing much to work with its top-tier customers to ensure the mainframe is meeting their leading-edge needs," he said.

Chuba pointed to the quantum-safe cryptography capabilities announced with IBM's latest z16 mainframe announcement.

"There are customers running at scale on the mainframe who still believe that it does offer them a competitive advantage in the marketplace," he said.

About the author

Nathan Eddy headshotNathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITPro Today. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.
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