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The evolution of mainframe modernization
All Blog Posts
Thought Leadership

8 min read

What’s So Modern About Modernization?

Spoiler alert: Modernization is not a new idea.  

The noun was first used in the mid-18th century, and referred exclusively to societal change, specifically—says Britannica.com—the “the transformation from a traditional, rural, agrarian society to an…urban, industrial society.” The word has subsequently been repurposed as a generic label to refer to upheaval in various spheres such as education, manufacturing and—in the recent past— technology.  

IT Modernization outlines the need to keep technology up to date. More specifically, mainframe modernization filters that definition towards pertaining to the mainframe. This is only partly helpful, because it doesn’t say which mainframe it means (We, therefore, must assume “any.”), nor does it clarify what level of change constitutes modernization. Again, therefore, any must qualify.  

As such, the term is slightly unclear, despite attempts to define it. I’ve looked at the history of the term to shed light on what modernization means—now and into the future.  

All About the Mainframe?  

Let’s start with the notion that something needs modernizing. The mainframe has been a vital IBM product since the IBM System/360 was announced in April 1964. Nowadays, IBM’s earnings reports show impressive revenues from its mainframe business.  

IBM produces new mainframes on a 3–to-4-year cycle, which seems often enough given the customers’ own efforts to commission one. The cycle of supply, commission, and usage is understandably lengthy. This mainframe life cycle history shows new mainframes are on sale for 4.1 years, with an additional 7.4 years of follow-on service.  

And that’s the essence of mainframe modernization: The machinery has been superseded by a new model, featuring greater power, capability, and resilience. Time to upgrade. You’ve had a similar conversation with your mobile phone vendor, no doubt: The new version is unquestionably superior to its predecessor, so an upgrade (or modernizing) is a case of when—not if.  

When is a Mainframe Not a Mainframe?

Of course, IBM does not have a monopoly, nor is the mainframe your only option. If you own(ed) a mainframe, it might not have been made by IBM. Other hardware vendors enjoyed great success in the mainframe market—including Amdahl, Unisys, Tandem, Siemens, and Fujtisu/ICL.  

Smaller hardware, originally called "mini” computers and later retitled “midrange,” offered reasonable performance at a far lower price. The IBM AS/400 (later the iSeries) was the undisputed market leader, with competitive offerings from HP and Digital. In many cases, a shortage of available skills, and more limited support options from the vendor—given many of the machines mentioned had been formally retired by their former suppliers—intensified the necessity for modernization.  

Upgrading was the Norm, But No Longer

In the past, changing IT hardware suppliers was a monumental effort—and hard to justify. Today, technology choice abounds in the digital era. Upgrades are not inevitable. No market—mainframes, midrange—is a monopoly. Customers have choices about current and future platforms.  

Nowadays, enhanced capability and performance is not exclusive to the latest mainframe.  Modernization now includes the concept of replacing platform. This change of underlying hardware is referred to as platform or infrastructure modernization, or "mainframe migration.”

It wasn’t until the early 2000s and the dot-com boom that the idea of mainframe migrations existed. The 2002 story of the Bertelsmann book club project—moving COBOL apps from mainframe to a Unisys server running Windows—alerted the industry to the feasibility of the approach (Moving COBOL applications to another platform, that is.). Further credible illustration emerged in 2004, in the financial services case of Lombard Insurance as just one example.

A Customer-Generated Market

The green shoots of the market spawned a deluge of internet activity thereafter. Micro Focus was the leading incumbent vendor and pioneered the approach before being joined by a peloton of vendors. Scanning search histories from 2004 shows a range of organizations talking modernization—including Astadia, MSS International, Adaptigent, HTWC, Macro4, BMC, Delta Software, Fujitsu, Infosys, and ATOS. Then joined a couple of years later by MOST, Microsoft, Virtel, Software AG, and IBM. While some of this list (e.g., IBM, ATOS, BMC and Macro4) were espousing modernizing on the mainframe in 2004, the majority were promoting a “mainframe migration” approach (platform change), led by a group of vendors called the Mainframe Migration Alliance, which soon boasted dozens of members. During the same period, vendors published customer stories and market reports indicating growing commercial success.  

Within a few years, the meteoric rise in the popularity of cloud computing and mobile devices caused a further push towards modernization as a strategic part of enterprise computing. Soon enough, joining the smaller and more established software vendors were all the major cloud providers and the global system integrators with their own offerings.

More Than a Platform

In the above example, there were vendors whose perspective was that the process of modernization should continue to use the mainframe platform. They were suggesting that what needed to change to support new business was the application (the functionality, the language, the data, or the user experience) in some way. Even Micro Focus, the pioneers of the “appliance"-based approach of platform migration—and the founders of the Mainframe Migration Alliance—repositioned themselves as an Application Modernization vendor from 2013 onwards, reflecting a more holistic approach to modernization.  

And those applications—often written in COBOL—built possibly decades ago, were frequently accused of various failings, including:

-Poor documentation

-Substandard user experience

-Heavy reliance on batch processing for data refresh and consolidation

-Monolithic architecture

-High coupling for third-party data or application integration

-Sluggish development practices

-Bloated deployment and pre-production procedures

-Scarcity of developer and administrator skills in house or in the contract market

-Low integration

-Uniformity of processes

With the above shortcomings plaguing the reputation of COBOL systems, the debate about its long-term viability as an enterprise application language continues to this day, with vendors of conversion technology—or even AI tools like AveriSource Transform—offering to accelerate that process.  

All of which validates the term “application modernization,” which remains a popular label—but by no means universal. You can see the phrases of application modernization and mainframe modernization—and the adjacent “legacy modernization” and “COBOL modernization”—littered across the ether from 2008 onwards and on an upwards trajectory since.  

Filling the Vacuum

For all the market interest, the industry analyst community has offered limited insight. Coverage has been irregular, often commission-driven with no definitive classification of the market. Perspectives are provided of the mainframe market—and for the cloud market—and then a separate perspective of the modernization services market. I’ve not found any attempt to define it holistically—though that may yet change too.  

Innovation and Disruptive Forces

Modernization as a technological concept was born in the 21st century. But two decades ago, there was no cloud, no enterprise-scale mobile device market, no 4G, very limited wireless connectivity, no internet of things, no containers—and Java had only just got started. The world of tech was about to change almost beyond recognition with enterprise software market undergoing these and many other seismic changes—and with mainframes and incumbent COBOL applications bracing themselves to cope with the impact.  

Unquestionably the most significant event affecting heritage IT systems of the past generation was the year 2000—or Y2K—milestone. Due to cost and memory constraints, older IT systems—typically COBOL-based—utilized coding techniques to store dates that were at risk of failing when the year became “00,” a risk that pervaded the entire global IT infrastructure. Finding and fixing the Y2K bug generated unprecedented focus on those systems which, until then, had been happily and successfully running the global economy. In addition to many new market offerings emerging during this time to solve the Y2K issue (including AveriSource), market concerns over the state of IT during Y2K led to a growing negative connotation of these “legacy systems," which in turn led to a growing impetus on renewal and modernization of older IT applications, which remains to this day.

It would also be remiss not to mention the profound impact the arrival of public cloud had on the marketplace, in addition to acting as a catalyst for application—and platform—modernization. Microsoft was an early proponent of modernization services, more recently joined with real vigour by AWS and Google Cloud. Studies reveal a strong tendency towards hybrid environments, in which the cloud will be a likely destination of many modernized applications.  

And in the last couple of years the arrival of AI and generative AI has created a new mountain of opportunity for how best to accelerate the process of application modernization across analysis, conversion, testing, and many other disciplines. It is hard to overstate the likely seismic impact AI will have on this and many other markets, and that’s before we even consider the potential of artificial general intelligence.  

Looking Ahead

Two decades or more of core IT system modernization—or whatever label we use—points at a relentless treadmill of inevitable change. Just as businesses must evolve, mainframes—and their applications—will continue to innovate, as will alternative and adjacent technology choices. In a recent Futurum article, the duality of opportunity and capability of the mainframe (and mainframe alternative) market was described as, “…a fascinating bifurcation. While mainframes continue to be a stronghold, showing impressive resilience and growth…there is an equally compelling narrative unfolding in the realm of mainframe modernization…particularly evident with the maturation of alternatives.”

As AI hits land with a tsunami of innovation, many are realistically expecting the pace of change to quicken. And as future trends around collaboration, 5G, automation, and new deployment technology shift the sands of the IT landscape, fresh impetus for application modernization—regardless of platform—will challenge IT leaders.  

This new époque of business change will demand further change for COBOL-based systems of record that have successfully evolved over decades. We should expect to see them playing a major part in how IT will evolve in the future.  

After all, history suggests that application modernization, at its heart, accepts that you are never done.

With over 30 years in the enterprise software industry—all of it in the application modernization arena—Derek is an accomplished technology marketing leader, writer, and presenter. With software development, marketing, sales enablement, and services experience, Derek regularly commentates across the IT press, and at events such as Gartner, Open Mainframe Project, SHARE, and GSE. Derek holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from De Montfort University.

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