The need for modern mobile solutions for mainframe data centers

Today most CIOs, CTOs and IT experts are aware of the impact of digital transformation (DX) on their respective businesses and IT organizations. Disruptive technologies like Big Data, business analytics, cloud (computing and storage), digital payment, and more recently the algorithmic economy and the Internet of Things (IoT), have and are making their impacts felt. However, the most impactful of all DXs may very well be mobile.

Mobile – the biggest digital transformation

Mobile technology has been thrust upon businesses by a demanding and changing customer dynamic – as millennials make their presence felt as consumers of goods and services. As you probably already know, most banks today offer at least some measure of mobile access to their customers. Any bank refusing to comply with customer demands would surely lose a portion of their customer base to their competitors.

More and more retailers are following suit – think of an online experience that includes only a sample of products offered, compared to the Walmart or Costco online experience. The difference is very much apparent, and the retail laggards suffer. Even some government departments are getting into the game.

Any business that deals directly with customers that is seen as being somehow deficient in providing acceptable mobile access, is probably leaving money on the table, and is more than likely risking ongoing loss of market share to their competition.

A digital strategy

A recent Forrester study concludes that most companies believe that they have a digital strategy to address their customer’s mobile demands, but in reality, they do not have the processes in place to execute digital strategies. This can result in approaching a critically important business objective – like the company’s mobile presence – in a limited and cautious way, resulting in delay, and almost certainly low customer satisfaction. In essence, failure.

The customer has spoken

In a recent Gartner study, actual customer reactions to unacceptable mobile experiences were identified – 52% said that a bad mobile experience made a customer less likely to engage with a company. 55% said that a frustrating mobile experience hurts their opinion of the company. And a full 66% said that they were disappointed in a bad mobile experience from a company, even if they liked the brand.

So why aren’t you providing good mobile access to your customers?

If you’re like other organizations running mainframe systems in their data centers, there is one major reason for this seemingly unacceptable business practice. You can only offer limited mobile access because your business intellectual property (IP) – the method though which you interact with your customer – is locked away in your legacy mainframe applications.

Making matters worse, the expertise that helped build these (largely COBOL) applications over the past two, three, or even four decades, is in short supply. In extreme cases, some businesses have none of this expertise on staff, and have been living with this business risk for many years.

What to do about it

This situation can lead to knee-jerk reactions that are not well thought out, or are made without gathering all of the information available. First, if you’re running out of COBOL expertise, does that mean you should migrate all business processing off of the mainframe? Remember that your mainframe is responsible for perhaps 75% of your revenue. Migrating off your primary revenue system might not be the most prudent action, and it may not be necessary at all.

Second, moving off the mainframe might not be a good idea in terms of operational costs and cost of ownership of systems. The rhetoric in circulation seems to indicate that costs can be sharply reduced by moving off the mainframe. In fact, studies have shown the truth to be quite the contrary – transaction-intense mainframe-heavy data centers are actually more cost efficient than midrange server-only datacenters. When considering operational business computing costs, it is important to consider all ongoing costs; not just the cost of the hardware.

Third, if you migrate off the mainframe, doesn’t that mean that you’ll have to re-engineer all of your decades-worth of IP from the ground up? (The answer to that question would be yes – some vendors will tell you that you won’t, but unless you’re running small, simple mainframe applications, you’ll have to do it.) What would the cost be to recreate decades worth of IP, especially if you have difficulty extracting it from your legacy COBOL applications? The answer to that question is often in the hundreds of millions of dollars or more; in fact there are many failed-migration horror stories quietly circulating out there.

Finally, to obtain the security, reliability (5-nines), performance and throughput capacity designed into mainframe systems, you’ll have to carefully build all that into any project that uses another platform. You lose the “cost advantage” that you thought you were getting by moving to a “cheaper platform”. You must then ask the question, just how much time, capital expense and risk you’re willing to invest in a migration?

The good news is that this is a solvable problem. And it doesn’t involve a forklift, nor does it involve a mega-reverse engineering project to rediscover your own IP.

Getting to where you need to be

Take the shortest path (and the most cost-effective path) to providing the mobile access to your services that your customers demand. You have decade’s worth of IP wrapped up in your legacy COBOL applications; why not leverage it as much as you can? There are solutions available today that allow you to do just that.

Optimize what you have now, and then build on what you have now – to get to where you need to be quickly, and for as little cost as possible.

Optimization first

In many IT organizations with multi-platform data centers, the mainframe has been in a silo for some time – no new hires, upgrades when transaction processing workload increases demand it – where cost control is paramount. For the most part, the mainframe is not part of any DevOps initiative, and new development, or new spending of any kind is discouraged, as new development is focused on other platforms.

The truth is, however, that the mainframe still accounts for the lion’s share of corporate revenue. If you want to implement mobile accessibility that leverages the mainframe, you’re going to need to optimize what you have now. And that’s not really a bad thing.

Optimization means increasing efficiency, using less system resources to do the same or more processing, and bringing operations cost down as much as possible – you’re not going to get an argument from the CFO on that one. New mobile apps are going to be used by your customers, and that will mean more transactions to process, and you need to start with a solid foundation. Optimization will do that for you.

Within this context, optimization needs to be cost-effective, it must either improve performance or at least not make things worse, and above all, it needs to be low-risk and relatively quick implementation. Ideally, it should also come with a positive ROI and a fast payback. Optimization solutions like this are available, but you have to shop around. Generally smaller vendors will have the best targeted solutions, while the larger vendors will try to sell you big-dollar suites containing a lot of “shelf-ware”.

Then build on what you have

The first key to building mobile apps quickly is to leverage the existing business logic currently running in your mainframe COBOL applications. The second key is a modern hybrid solution that will leverage your existing mainframe applications and databases virtually unchanged.

Such a solution will add no extra burden to whatever COBOL expertise that you have now, and you’ll be able to create new mobile apps or new application logic (or anything else) using millennial programmers and the toolsets that they feel most comfortable using. The new apps can run anywhere – on mid-range servers, mobile devices, or even on the mainframe on LinuxOne.

There is no need to re-invent the wheel.

How the hybrid solution works

Your legacy batch programs, data storage, transaction programs and interfaces are unchanged. The only changes are an integration layer on the mainframe that can be used to define and deliver customized APIs that can drive the new mobile interfaces. Applications developed on distributed systems and running on mobile devices (or the web, or anywhere else) access mainframe assets using TCP/IP or MQ, through the new integration layer. Legacy CICS applications respond by accessing mainframe data as required, and returning results to the requesting mobile/distributed application. In this way, new mobile applications can be written and brought online as fast as they are ready. There are no infrastructure change costs, no new COBOL projects, and no application rewrites, just a modest cost for an integration solution that allows seamless mobile access to existing mainframe assets.

The solution allows your millennial programmers to leverage your existing assets, without reinventing the wheel. Modern skill sets (JS, Java, .NET, etc.) can be used to build new apps on mobile systems that will access existing mainframe applications. Tight but powerful APIs will allow new applications to communicate with the legacy mainframe assets. New applications can also be written (running on distributed servers) to augment the legacy mainframe applications.

Results using a modern hybrid development solution

The solution removes the need to re-invent the wheel – the cost of a reverse engineering project is avoided, as is the cost of a forklift infrastructure swap-out. The difference in the development effort needed using contemporary thinking and a modern hybrid development solution is remarkable – it is orders of magnitude less.

Equally impressive is the time needed to implement a mobile project – weeks/months using the modern low-risk hybrid development solution, and years using the high-risk contemporary solutions. And no less important is the improved customer satisfaction – you’re delivering the user experience that they demand.

Conclusions

A modern hybrid development solution is the quickest, least risky and most cost-effective way to provide your customers with the user experience they expect: mobile access to your services. You leverage your own IP without re-inventing the wheel. The technique involves optimizing your current assets, and then building on what you have now. And your millennial programmers do most of the work.

Keith Allingham

Keith Allingham

Contributing Editor at Planet Mainframe
In addition to the planning, development and management of the Planet Mainframe blog, Keith serves as Marketing Manager at DataKinetics, monitoring business trends, and providing messaging for corporate and partner products and solutions. Previously, Keith has held consulting, management, marketing and technical positions with various tech companies and government organizations.
Keith Allingham

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