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Five Ways To Modernize Your Mainframes

After three decades of innovation, miniaturization, and acceleration, the most viable platform for high-volume enterprise applications remains the mainframe computer. If trends continue, companies servicing 5,000 users or more worldwide will retain their investment in mainframe technology well into the next decade. Not only will this environment survive, it may thrive, and if indicators for 2003 are correct, it may actually grow. For the largest companies today, the move away from the mainframe and toward distributed client-server computing has stopped.
But for many large companies, the biggest issue isn't whether to buy more big iron, it's how to better capitalize on their existing mainframes. There must be something that says "I'm risk-averse" about data-center managers, because apart from tactical moves such as jettisoning tape administrators, consolidating licenses, and off-loading systems management to third parties, many companies have been reluctant to apply innovative initiatives.

"I think there's some fear of digging into some of these legacy architectures, where a lot of skills have been lost," says William Ulrich, an analyst with the Cutter Consortium and author of Legacy Systems: Transformation Strategies (Prentice Hall PTR, 2002). During the migration of the past few decades, Ulrich says, many companies laid off the veteran IT staff they need to optimize and modernize their mainframes. "They may not understand," he says, "that there's tools out there to do it, and there's techniques and approaches for it."

"I think the notion of legacy, in many regards, has already passed," says Pete McCaffrey, IBM's director of product marketing for its flagship zSeries of mainframe computers, formerly known as System/390. "More than 70% of our [mainframe] business volume last year went to customers that were deploying new applications."

Have mainframe computers--even new ones--become more cost effective for large companies than distributed servers? Not surprisingly, mainframe (hardware and software) vendors we interviewed say it's also expensive to manage distributed servers, particularly for high-volume applications. Cost-of-ownership studies have shown the numbers tallied in various ways. But for most customers, the pertinent question isn't which platform is right, it's, how can we maximize our mainframe investment while saving a buck or two? InformationWeek researched the total-cost-of-ownership claims of dozens of vendors in the mainframe software and services markets. We identified five categories of modernization and best practices--some of which are state of the art, others of which are actually older than the PC--that add value and viability to large business systems and which are supported by fair arguments that their potential return on investment can lower TCO.

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