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Preparing for the Wave of Mainframe Modernization

The prospects are bright for mainframe operators migrating to cloud environments; Rocket Software’s Phil Buckellew weighs in

Within critical industries such as finance, transportation and healthcare, many IT leaders have watched digital transformations, cloud migrations and innovations in other businesses and organizations and wondered, “Why not us?”

Digital transformation became a little more of a reality for mainframe operators at the end of 2023. Boston-based Rocket Software wrapped up the year by signing an agreement to acquire the Application Modernization and Connectivity (AMC) business of the enterprise information management software firm OpenText. The acquisition is expected to close in the second quarter of 2024 subject to regulatory and other approvals.

The acquisition will pair a leader in mainframe software development with innovative tools and a powerful team at AMC that has focused on providing application modernization solutions in every possible environment, from mainframes to the cloud. It’s also part of a deeper trend of mainframe-dependent organizations looking to transform their core business applications, processes and infrastructure to use in cloud environments.

recent survey of IT leaders in enterprise-level businesses found that 93% believe their organizations need to embrace a hybrid infrastructure spanning from mainframe to cloud.

With many mainframe users interested in the benefits of the hybrid infrastructure model, there is strong interest in finding vendors to help modernize application portfolios.

The Market Is Primed and Ready

“It’s estimated that more than 70% of S&P 500 companies use mainframes or similar core IT systems in their business,” says Phil Buckellew, president of infrastructure modernization at Rocket Software. “And there’s research that 65% of IT leaders believe implementing hybrid cloud solutions is a top priority. That shows how significant this move is.

“Partnering with the teams at AMC will help build our strategy of meeting clients wherever they are in their modernization journeys, whether they’re modernizing their existing mainframe applications or going all the way and migrating workloads to the public cloud,” says Buckellew.

In addition, as more engineers trained in using cloud services are becoming available, the fact that they will be able to use their talents with core mainframe data and applications will enhance the bright future for mainframe operations and applications.

The cloud future wasn’t always so bright. Many in IT leadership saw the possibilities of cloud services but were reluctant to pull the trigger, uneasy with the security and reliability of cloud apps compared to mainframe apps, or with the possible business disruption it could create. In some cases, organizations tried to rewrite mainframe apps to run natively on the cloud.  This doesn’t always work well and has frequently resulted in tremendous expense and substantial business disruption.

Addressing the Modernization Pain Points

Modernizing those legacy applications can be a difficult task for mainframe operators. Many have been written in COBOL, PL/1, RPG or other languages and haven’t been updated in decades.

It’s not uncommon for mainframe operators to feel they’re simply “running in place” maintaining older applications. “They need capabilities that can help with the application development lifecycle and give the operator the modernized environment they’re looking for,” says Buckellew.

In an ideal hybrid cloud solution, the operator can view what’s happening in the whole environment using monitoring tools that expose siloed data to higher order application management solutions. “Waterfall-type development approaches used to be the standard in mainframes, but now it’s critical to have more of an agile approach,” says Buckellew. “The old mainframe experience was working with siloed applications that didn’t always communicate. With modernization, that’s going away.”

Rocket’s pending acquisition of AMC will be a testament to the idea that the most productive path for many modernization efforts requires a strategy that operates on a spectrum, with a continuum that runs from on-premises to the cloud and bridges the gap between the two. Organizations retain the reliability, availability and security of their core legacy systems and the advantages of highly scalable cloud environments that have also been proven reliable.

“It’s really possible to get the best of both worlds,” says Buckellew. “We’ve seen that you can’t just rewrite these apps and plug them in and call that ‘modernization.’ But you can find a path that improves what you have and gives you solutions for future needs.”

Bracing for the AI Wave

Microprocessor development for mainframes is preparing for the rise of AI applications, which will be expected to assist transactional workloads. As more AI solutions come online, clients will need to train their models. And those that have already migrated to a cloud solution will be able to use both structured and unstructured data from the cloud and the mainframe.

The process of inferencing—or running live data through a trained AI model to make a prediction or solve a task, whether it’s a credit card being swiped or a new hotel reservation—will be done in milliseconds and make the AI solution better each time it’s used. In turn, it will be critical that organizations are able to have inferencing solutions as part of their transactional workloads.

“Clients know they need to take advantage of predictive and generative AI to grow their businesses, but they also need to be able to leverage all that data into real-time analytics or use models based on data from their core IT systems. And that’s really something that we’re working to help them with,” says Buckellew.

“[Customers] are in need of expertise in modernization and cloud migration, and they want to connect with a partner that understands mainframe core IT operations,” says Buckellew. He believes this need will help build connections between mainframe operators and vendors attuned to their needs in the hybrid cloud.

What’s Next for Hybrid Cloud on the Mainframe

Buckellew believes that as mainframe operators begin to migrate their core applications into the hybrid cloud, their infrastructure will increasingly look like that of other types of businesses and organizations. “You’ll no longer see applications and data from mainframes that are stuck in silos.  Increasingly, mainframe apps will be developed, monitored and secured in similar ways to the rest of their environment,” he says.

“Metrics and data from across the different parts of the stack will be collected for use in AI. You’ll also see a blending of the infrastructure that will help businesses move faster, take advantage of more innovation and provide better outcomes.”