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The false dichotomy of cloud and mainframes

Forget simplistic binary choices and the over-enthusiastic claims of vendors who would like to replace as much existing infrastructure as possible – the cloud and mainframes are not incompatible.

As a cloud evangelist and believer, I often get asked whether the trusty old mainframe still has a place in the hyper-scale, hybrid IT landscape of the future. Sometimes, people are surprised when I say “yes, absolutely”. Here’s why.

Perhaps it’s been the volume of cloud hype, over the last decade – or maybe it’s a play to discredit a very highly capable piece of technology by ambitious start-ups. Or maybe it’s a combination of both that has led to the myth that mainframes and the cloud are somehow fundamentally incompatible, so that a solution that includes both is a sort of anomaly? Even framing the question in this way makes it clear how absurd it is. And yet, that is sometimes the impression that people get.

The truth is very different, of course. More than 70 percent of global Fortune 500 companies use the mainframe to run their core business functions. Because data is core, cloud connectivity is very often mandatory, since it provides access to important data across a wide range of users and applications.

Before we even get to hybrid mainframe/cloud environments, let’s consider what it is that ensures that mainframes have enjoyed such a long lifetime at the heart of data center infrastructure. Mainframe innovation has developed over many years and the systems provide many highly-specific features and benefits as highlighted by numerous use cases.

For example, they are outstandingly suitable as central high-performance systems to meet fluctuating demand from the server pool of modern data centers and are an important part in the mix available to handle large quantities of data, providing powerful economic arguments while also ensuring permanent availability.

Mainframes are also an ideal tailor-made platform for business-critical applications that have been developed and refined over many years.

Mainframes support the future of IT

These attributes make mainframes the ideal candidates to provide the centralized processing power that’s needed to allow ultra-modern network edge-based technologies such as AI or IoT to fulfil their potential. Coupled with devices such as Fujitsu INTELLIEDGE, which make selective decisions on what data to upload from the plethora of devices and sensors at the network edge, mainframes make it possible to aggregate and process the uploaded input, as well as pulling in big data from other sources – for example, weather and traffic conditions, as well as historical data from previous years – leading to meaningful business insights.

It is as simple as that: a clear and compelling argument as to why mainframe systems will continue to play a highly-secure role as the mission critical part of our modern world.

Robustness of design is another reason to justify the upfront investment in mainframe systems. Organizations operating mainframes can feel proud that – when other systems around the world are under threat – the core machines running critical business infrastructures such as air traffic control, stock exchanges and banking systems keep on running, on hardworking, durable enterprise platforms.

This issue came into sharp focus in January, when two new hardware security breaches, named Spectre and Meltdown, just couldn’t touch Fujitsu mainframes. It’s simply not possible to just run some rogue code on a Fujitsu mainframe system, as this privilege is protected in the system design. And if you cannot execute malicious code, then you cannot gain unauthorized access to a system.

Unlocking value

Assuming you now agree it’s not a binary choice between mainframe or cloud, then let’s talk about unlocking maximum value. This clearly requires the ability to converge diverse mainframe technologies into a single, consistent hardware-independent, cloud-based service delivery model, enabling customers to run heterogeneous environments.

At Fujitsu, we have a lot of experience with mainframes in financial services, where they are often used to keep valuable data on-premises. In another example from the UK, Virgin Money uses VME as the backbone of its operations. VME is the engine that drives Virgin Money’s savings and mortgage book, supporting not only 2,500 internal users but also the online customer interface.

The platform is extremely reliable – consistently providing more than 99.9% availability – and its performance is also predictable, a vital attribute when dealing with millions of transactions and customers.

As well as providing Virgin Money with the ability to refresh its VME mainframe via an ‘as-a-service’ commercial model where Fujitsu takes responsibility for the management, support and development of the environment, we have also developed technologies for opening the bank’s data to new interfaces, such as RESTful APIs. These can be made available to mobile apps, giving Virgin Money a modern interface while also retaining business-critical security and reliability.

Here we have an example of an extremely modern ‘challenger’ bank that does unique things to differentiate itself, such as providing total net worth statements linked to the data in core systems. It does so using that so-called “legacy” equipment, linking to it using API technology and giving customers extra convenience.

Another example of how mainframes are remaining relevant today is the recent system upgrade conducted by one of our customers in Germany – the Rhineland-Palatinate State Tax Office, which chose to invest in mainframe technology to provide the maximum value for its customers – in this case, the state’s taxpayers. Not only did the state decide to stick with trusted mainframe technology but also it chose a managed service model, therefore avoiding the need to make a large upfront investment. Instead, the office makes regular ongoing payments, based on actual usage.

We understand that not everyone wants to continue with mainframes as the one-size-fits-all solution for all applications – especially if they are locked in to IBM – and so we offer a path to tailor-made cloud migration for customers who have made that decision. The important point is that our customers have choices. Uniquely, mainframe remains as an option besides migration, especially where security of data is absolutely paramount, and mainframe to cloud is a valid choice too.

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