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Why Mainframes Survive

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IBM z16 mainframe

Even as COBOL programmers and mainframe support personnel age out of the workforce, IBM continues to modernize the mainframe infrastructure and software stack.

Credit: IBM

Mainframe ownership is not without challenges. Only the largest companies use them, as they're expensive to own and operate — they cost between $250,000 to $4,000,000, and each one is custom-built. They require a large support staff that could number in the hundreds or thousands. Technical support staff skilled in COBOL, JCL, mainframe storage, hardware maintenance, mainframe operations, and applications are aging out of the workforce. COBOL is no longer widely taught, and few universities have hands-on mainframe topics in their curriculum.

Still, people have been predicting the death of the mainframe for decades, and they continue to survive because they fill the important niche of processing high-volume, business-critical financial transactions. Fortune 500 companies have been using the same COBOL code bases for decades. The original developers have long since moved on or even died of old age, and rewriting tens of millions of lines of mission-critical code is a very difficult, very expensive proposition.

Many companies have tried and failed at conversion. But converting the code is just part of the overall migration process. You also have to convert your data, develop new processes and procedures around the new applications, train new people on the processes and procedures, stress-test all systems, and then make the cut-over to run in production.

All this has to happen on a defined schedule and budget. Many companies have spent tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to try to upgrade these kinds of systems and failed. The safer option is to simply continue to pay the licensing fees on the mainframe hardware, OS, and applications and maintain staff for the hundreds or thousands of support personnel.

From Ars Technica
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