Is Mainframes A Dying Technology?


Introduced in the 1950s, Mainframes are high-performance computers with large memory and processing power that can handle billions of calculations and transactions in real-time. They are superior to PCs, work stations, and minicomputers in more than one ways.

Mainframes, aka big iron, run in the background of bulky and critical data processing tasks.

Today, every enterprise and industry are moving to the cloud. Last year’s pandemic further accelerated cloud migration, with the worldwide end-user spending on public cloud services set to grow at 18.4% to total $304.9 billion in 2021. Cloud platforms such as AWS, Microsoft Azure and private cloud frameworks such as OpenStack have gained traction.

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So, the question is, does a technology introduced more than half a century ago still hold water? 


Mainframes offer a handful of benefits:

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  • They can retain their performance levels when upgrading computing functions due to advanced I/O technologies. This helps avoid downtimes and system crashes.
  • Modern mainframes can process billions of transactions accurately and in real-time. The estimated number stands at 30 billion transactions a day.
  • They can identify and alert errors quickly.
  • Since Mainframes divide data into multiple independent and isolated machines, it is ideal for information storage and backup. 
  • Mainframes offer software flexibility. You can either use mainframe operating systems such as z/OS or can run it on Linux. Mainframes can also run Docker containers.

Large companies keep investing in mainframes, extending their core applications, consolidating application space, and improving processes by adding DevOps and automation even as they explore cloud options. 

According to IBM, the top 20 global banks use its latest z15 mainframe. In 2020, IBM Systems Group reported a 68 percent gain in the Q2 IBM Z mainframe year-over-year revenue.

Bringing Linux to mainframes gave the latter a big advantage. In an earlier interview, Ross Mauri, the general manager for IBM Z said, “For the first five or so years we really were just experimenting with what we could do with Linux and the mainframe, but then the server-consolidation movement hit, and we knew we had something big.”

Several applications, including Red Hat OpenShift (a Kubernetes based open-source container application), IBM Cloud Paks, and other open-source applications, are available on mainframes.

Too Soon To Write An Obituary

Mainframes have been declared dead too many times to keep count. Obviously, the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. 

While smaller companies are moving away from mainframe technology, medium-sized and larger organisations have grown their mainframe footprint from 5 to 15 percent and 15 to 20 percent, respectively, according to a Gartner report. The report also predicted that the mainframe’s installed capacity would increase 8 percent annually in the coming years.

Being a legacy technology, a lot of companies host their strategic applications on mainframes. Moving out might have high opportunity costs.

Additionally, mainframe workloads include multiple aspects such as Job Control Language (JCL) files, database engines, transaction processing monitors, and mainframe programming languages such as COBOL, Pascal and FORTRAN. Businesses usually opt for hybrid solutions; mainframes combined with other solutions such as cloud to avoid the cost and complexity of complete migration.

“Two decades earlier, when client-server technologies emerged, there were predictions that the era of mainframes is over and that we will not see any mainframes in the 21st century. While there are two opposing schools of thought about the relevance of mainframes in the current scenario, there is still a substantial percentage of organisations who still rely on their performance and continue using them. Mainframes which once relied on COBOL are now compatible with LINUX, Python, JavaScript and C++. Hence their relevance and usage are still increasing. Even in the current era of AI, the mainframe is still versatile enough to be used with open source languages and tools such as TensorFlow, Scala, Python, and Apache SparkML. Thus, the extinction of the mainframe computer is far from over and we will see more and more adaptation of this technology in the years to come, with wider applications in various sectors,” said Dr Christopher Abraham, CEO & Head – Dubai Campus, SP Jain School of Global Management.

Mainframe usage is particularly high for industries that are transaction-intensive and rely on data. Banking and finance, utilities, healthcare and governments continue to depend heavily on mainframe systems, he added. 

“According to reports, there are more than 10,000+ mainframe computers active worldwide primarily being used by banks & the financial services industry. This is mainly because they are much faster at processing petabytes of data than distributed servers on the internet. Many banks also have legacy applications that need to run on these mainframes. IBM reported a 61% rise in sales of its mainframes, with 71% of enterprise users expecting increased workloads to be allocated to these computers. So it looks like mainframes will not be obsolete in the near future,” said Dr Akhil Shahani, Managing Director, Thadomal Shahani Centre for Management, Shahani Group and CEO, Ask.Careers.

Tread With Caution

That said, there are a few inadequacies that may push users away from mainframes, such as:

  • They are not user friendly. Operating mainframes requires a high level of expertise with highly trained and expensive information staff.
  • Developing and implementing new systems as programs is a complex and time-consuming task.
  • On-premise mainframe systems are very expensive, preventing smaller companies from exploring this technology. Costs related to software licensing, contract, and operational inefficiencies further compounds the issue.

Commenting on the high cost of mainframes, Ravi Jain, Director – Sever sales, India/South Asia, IBM said, “IBM sees the mainframe as a bridge for hybrid computing environments, offering a highly secure place for data that when combined with Red Hat’s tools, can enable companies to have a single control plane for applications and data wherever it lives. What small organizations have to look for is, the performance superiority that a mainframe offers.” Further talking about how mainframes can be virtualised, Jain added, “Smaller companies too have started seeing the benefit from the mainframe adoption by  leveraging IBM LinuxONE platform which allows them to run their applications on Redhat, Suse, Ubuntu or other community-supported Linux distributions.”

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