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The World’s Most Powerful Businesses Still Rely on Mainframes — Here’s Why

Ray Overby

February 6, 2023

IT leaders and tech journalists alike have predicted the mainframe’s demise for over 30 years. But despite the recent explosion of cloud computing, the mainframe is still kicking — and it’s nowhere close to being put on life support.

As has been the case throughout its 70-plus-year history, the mainframe remains a secure and reliable choice for businesses that need to process a high volume of transactions on an ongoing basis. While cloud-based solutions have been welcomed with excitement and expectation, the cloud alone simply can’t support the lightning-fast processing requirements and stringent security needs of many government agencies and Fortune 500 companies.

According to data from IBM — one of the largest manufacturers of mainframe technology — active mainframe users include:

  • 45 of the top 50 banks
  • 8 of the top 10 insurers
  • 8 of the top 10 telcos
  • 7 of the top 10 retailers

So, regardless of what you’ve heard, don’t write off mainframes as obsolete “legacy” technology. Mainframes can play a critical role in your company’s digital transformation efforts — and work in conjunction with the cloud to deliver a customized hybrid infrastructure aligned with your evolving business needs.

Mainframes are still cutting edge technology, even in the cloud era

Today’s mainframes resemble their early predecessors about as much as a Tesla resembles the Model T — the basic structure is the same, but the technology and its capabilities are light-years ahead.

For example, IBM’s newest mainframe, which rolled out in May 2022, can process 300 billion high-value financial transactions every day with a mere millisecond of latency and uses AI to detect fraud. These advancements have kept modern mainframes at the cutting edge of data processing and security. And with fewer exploitable endpoints than the cloud, mainframes provide a reliable architecture for companies that process a high volume of business-critical information around the clock — particularly in industries that handle sensitive customer data like finance, insurance, healthcare, and retail.

But that’s not to say the mainframe is always the right choice for every workload, at least not as a standalone. As the usage of cloud-based applications and development options increases, more enterprises are adopting a hybrid cloud architecture to expand and strengthen operations. Using a mainframe in conjunction with cloud services enables you to take advantage of the mainframe’s superior data processing speeds and security features while still benefiting from the cloud’s scalability and flexibility.

Determining whether the mainframe is right for your business

Mainframes come with a high upfront hardware cost — one of the reasons IT teams frequently turn to the cloud instead. While it’s true mainframes often demand a hefty investment, they can actually be more cost-effective than the cloud in certain use cases, particularly in terms of the size of the team required to manage the technology.

So, how do you determine if the mainframe is the right fit for your IT needs? Here are a few factors to consider when weighing your options:

  1. What are your primary use cases?
    Mainframes are best suited for mission-critical programs in which an outage or security breach would lead to severe repercussions for your business and customers. Also consider how much computing power you require: If your programs run 24/7 and continuously process huge volumes of data, the mainframe may be your best solution.
  2. What level of security do you need?
    Mainframes are equipped with built-in security features like data encryption and fraud detection. They also require secure user authentication, which prevents unauthorized users from bypassing controls and enables you to trace every update an individual user makes within the system.Of course, mainframes aren’t impenetrable, and, like the cloud, require updates and ongoing maintenance to keep threats at bay. Security consultants can support your internal team by conducting risk assessments and scanning for code vulnerabilities that might otherwise be difficult to detect.
  3. Do you have the right team in place?
    Before introducing a mainframe, it’s critical to have a mainframe security architect in place. This employee ensures your mainframe architecture is designed to integrate efficiently and securely with other software and hardware — including the cloud. This key role is responsible for advising your business leaders on the risks involved with rolling out new applications and recommending solutions that preserve the integrity of the mainframe. External partners can help train your existing cybersecurity team or help you identify the right new hire to bring on board.

The mainframe remains integral to the IT infrastructure of many of the world’s leading enterprises — and it may be the right solution for your business, too. In many situations, the mainframe can integrate with cloud platforms to create a customized architecture uniquely tailored to your business’ evolving needs.

Advancements in mainframe technology will continue to accelerate alongside cloud architecture. So, before writing off the mainframe as an expensive technological dinosaur, it’s worth considering whether it’s actually the most efficient, secure and modern choice for your critical business applications.