Tackling legacy applications on mainframes
As they roll out their digital transformation strategies, organisations that rely on the mainframe may be questioning whether they now need to move away from the platform, writes Neil Evans, CTO EMEA, UNICOM Global. Many decades-old enterprise applications continue to run on IBM Z, however, with the bulk of them being mission-critical online transaction processing (OLTP) systems requiring processing capabilities, levels of security and resilience that can’t be easily matched by other platforms.
In fact, in a recent Forrester study of IT and business leaders within organisations that use the mainframe, 74% said they believe it has long-term viability as a strategic platform for their organisation. And 72% said they were planning upgrades to their mainframes in the next three years.
At the same time, some degree of modernisation is essential if long established mainframe systems are going to live on – especially given the skills shortages, perceived complexity and usability issues, together with the lack of quality management information for IT and business leaders about what’s happening on the platform.
Prioritising customer facing systems
The initial priority for mainframe modernisation has largely been on making important customer-facing applications easy and effortless: think online insurance quotes or mobile banking. These typically constitute the core transaction processing systems for the organisation, and you don’t want the mainframe to do all the work delivering the end-user customer experience – the costs in terms of processing workload would quickly mount up.
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Ideally you want to optimise the use of the mainframe, by adding some business logic placed within a middleware layer using technologies such as WebSphere, APIs and JAVA. This middleware can take away all the other processing that is required to deliver the customer experience, leaving the mainframe to only execute the transactions. IBM’s WebSphere toolkits, for example, allow you to orchestrate all transactions with a layer in between and deliver the front-end experience to mobile apps and websites.
Importantly, this means you are creating new applications which then communicate with the back-end systems on the mainframe. So, you are not directly modernising or interfering with the core system at all.
Mainframe modernisation for employees
Now organisations are turning to modernising applications used by employees. This is the second wave of modernisation which focuses on making IBM Z applications easier and more accessible internally. Included in this are the systems used by technical staff and by business users doing things on behalf of the customer or on behalf of the business, such as operating airline ticketing systems, or working on the customer service desk.
Improving the employee experience is becoming essential as enterprises try to increase productivity while empowering workers and improving employee satisfaction. This is especially important in the current climate with companies competing to retain staff. Most employees are also consumers and they now expect the same easy, intuitive experiences they will have had when using consumer facing apps.
So, what are the fundamentals of this kind of modernisation programme? The sensible approach is to keep the application logic and code in place and focus on what really matters – transforming the user experience. And this can be achieved via a succession of steps.
Step 1: Web and mobile enablement
First, you can get a quick win by taking the mainframe’s 3270 green-screen interface and running it through a browser so it’s accessible through web and mobile devices – increasingly important given the rise of remote and mobile working.
One shortcut is to use modern session management software as an instant way of web-enabling applications. This approach uses the web interface that comes with the mainframe session manager as a means of accessing applications. There is no need to change mainframe application code or create a brand new interface. And because the software can also work with touch screens, it’s easier to use on mobile devices.
While the look and feel of the interface doesn’t change much, another big advantage of this approach is that applications can be accessed from any device rather than having to install a terminal emulator which is the standard approach for giving employees access to mainframe applications.
Step 2: Updating the look and feel
Taking things to the next level, you can turn the old terminal interface into something much more user friendly by updating the look and feel. Add a graphical user interface and customisation to improve usability, such as merging several mainframe screens into one, so it is less cumbersome moving through the application. Modernisation technologies allow green-screens to be rapidly transformed into modern web and mobile experiences – using low-code development environments. You can also create drop-down menus and turn commands into icons so that users do not have to enter commands, for example.
Step 3: Building a modern user experience
From there it is possible to do something even more sophisticated, realigning applications around current business processes to deliver a more user-centric experience. More advanced apps, for example, are not just a web app, they have some intelligence around them – application logic and analytics to make suggestions and automate actions. You can create a framework to build a modern user experience incorporating some of this, without having to change the back-end applications.
For example, you can pre-populate forms by integrating information from other applications such as a CRM database, so employees aren’t forced to fill in information such as customer addresses that the organisation already has. You can get more advanced so that instead of getting employees to fill in a form, you might allow them to talk to a chat bot which then completes the form.
By progressing in steps, you can move from simply improving access, to improving the look and feel, to reengineering the application to be something more modern and productive.
Simplify business intelligence and operational intelligence
The mainframe is sometimes seen as an area of risk simply because it is less well understood. Which is why another modernisation priority is demystifying aspects of the platform both for senior IT and business leaders and for IT technicians who are tasked with looking after applications.
To instil confidence in IBM Z it is important for senior stakeholders to have a better appreciation of what it is delivering without having to become mainframe experts. IT and line-of-business chiefs, for example, often struggle to understand the problems and risks surrounding critical mainframe systems because reporting is too technical and requires specialist knowledge.
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Operational intelligence can be improved by making metrics that measure performance, costs, service levels etc., more accessible, for example, by using modern dashboard technologies to provide personalised, role-based views of the enterprise IT landscape. Mainframe data can also be passed to analytics and AI platforms such as Splunk and Watson to help executives extract better business intelligence.
The emphasis should be on demonstrating the contribution of mainframe applications and how well they are performing as well as highlighting any challenges that need to be addressed.
Addressing the technical skills gap
For technicians there is a need to help bridge the skills gap. You no longer have an army of people with many years of mainframe experience who can recognise patterns and problems in data tables and monitoring tools, instantly knowing what to do. Which is why you now need AIOps, machine learning and modelling to simplify and automate aspects of the job, burying much of the granular detail (but still retaining the ability to let people drill into the data to diagnose problems and make decisions themselves if required).
Automation and simplification are also needed because in an ideal world you want to reduce or eliminate the time technicians are devoting to everyday tasks such as allocating more disk space or increasing CPU capacity.
Bring all stakeholders along with you
Any modernisation programme must acknowledge the existence of bias which makes it difficult to assess objectively whether to keep an application on the mainframe or to remove it.
You need to build in ways to overcome opposing views. Be clear about the goals of any project using objective data. What is the application delivering, what resources is it using and how will this evolve? The data must be presented to all stakeholders in a way that can be easily understood. Internal survey and project planning tools can be helpful in allowing people to provide feedback and contribute to decisions as well as keeping them engaged as the project progresses to the final outcome.
We are probably far away from the day when the majority of IBM Z applications are ready to be moved off the platform and businesses should be keeping an open mind about this.
Application modernisation is key, however, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge undertaking. A phased approach can be adopted, targeting key focus areas such as improving aspects of the user experience, introducing automation for those at the coalface who need to support and maintain the technology, and ensuring better business intelligence so that decision makers are able to make meaningful decisions about the ongoing role of IBM Z systems within the wider IT strategy.