Mainframes Will Continue, But Their Roles May Change

To many in this PC/client-server age of computing, the idea of using a mainframe computer in business seems like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly–it might work, but why deal with all that cumbersome hardware?

Yet insurers, who were among the pioneers in mainframe use in the 1970s, continue to use these “iron giants” for many of their most critical operations. And, according to the experts we asked, carriers are likely to keep on using their mainframe workhorses, although the uses they put them to may change as we move into the future.

While we may think of mainframe computers as old clunkers, the technology has actually been growing and improving over time, especially in the insurance industry, says Bill Tedrick, vice president, customer services and industry sales for Cincinnati-based IVANS.

“Mainframes have gotten a new breath of life, with carriers plugging a lot of boxes and software tools” into these computers, Tedrick notes. In addition, mainframe maker IBM and Microsoft have provided software platforms for the mainframe environment that have “given more options to carriers,” he says.

“In terms of power, scalability and raw computing muscle, the mainframes still have more thats easier to use and access,” Tedrick states. “As long as headway continues to be made” in software development for mainframes, “the mainframe may become the big management tool that sits behind a lot of these components.”

When it comes to products outliving their usefulness, Tedrick maintains that “obsolescence is a state of mind,” and that as long as mainframes meet needs of companies, they will live on.

“Companies have invested a lot in lines of [mainframe] code they have written,” Tedrick adds. “Its hard to say, Gee, Im going to throw this out and move to a new technology, just for the sake of doing it.”

Chuck Johnston, program director, insurance information strategies for the Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group, agrees that “the mainframe is a great machine. Its had lots of uses in the insurance industry in the past and it is stillof value.”

But while the mainframe was once the hub of a companys data center, Johnston says, “the days when you will have everything on the mainframe are over.”

He points out, however, that systems management applications on the mainframe are more “mature” than what is available in the client-server environment. Such an environment, he notes, “doesnt have the robustness of being able to manage a three-platform system in a data center.

“At this point, for mission critical, high availability applications, a mainframe is still the best place to implement them,” Johnston states. “You also have an awful lot of legacy code running on mainframes and theres no good reason to change that unless theres some risk.”

Most companies, he opines, would not spend the money to make changes where there was no such risk.

Johnston notes, however, that small to medium-sized companies are “thinking about moving away from mainframes.” Such companies, he says, “are doing less and less on the mainframe,” because the application vendors are moving toward [building software for] client-server systems.

Johnston says the key for todays companies is that “we recognize that we cant just have one platform to run an enterprise.”

The bottom line, says Johnston, is that mainframes are “not going away any time soon,” although they may be losing their “most favored nation status.”

According to Eli Dabich, Jr., president of Synergy 2000, Pasadena, Calif., the real difficulty with mainframes is finding staff to run and maintain them. Synergy 2000 is a systems integrator doing business in the insurance industry.

“To hire mainframe programmers is more expensive than it has been, because they are a dying breed,” says Dabich. A beginning programmer, he notes, would be much more likely to take a position using client-server systems instead of mainframes, putting the future of mainframes in doubt.

“There may be people available [to run mainframe systems], but theyre getting older and older,” he observes. “Old farts like me are going to start dying off pretty soon, and were the old farts with all the mainframe experience.”

Asked how the newer self-diagnosing and self-correcting mainframes will affect the anticipated staff shortage, Dabich says, “These systems may be self-correcting, but think of the technology and training required to understand them and to troubleshoot these systems.”

He compares the situation to trying to get a modern automobile fixed at an old-fashioned gas station. A gas station, he notes, “doesnt have the electronic diagnostics to fix the chips, and its the same thing with self-correcting systems. People will be difficult to find and difficult to train.”

Eventually, Dabich says, “mainframes will be so intertwined with PCs and client-server that it will be difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins. At the end of the day,” he adds, “hardware has become a commodity.”

“Nowadays, all industries are moving away from mainframes because of the capabilities of the smaller servers,” states Bruce Hill, president of Hillcomp, a systems integrator based in Greenwood Village, Colo.

He also notes, however, that “so much has been put into mainframe systems [by companies] that theyre reluctant to switch.” In some cases, he says, companies may be paying just as much for interfaces between mainframes and other systems as they would for new client-server systems. The key is the relative cost of maintaining mainframes versus installing new client-server systems.

Hill also sees staffing as a problem. “Try to find a tech that understands mainframes, then suddenly youre paying a premium,” he notes. For one client, Hillcomp had to fly a programmer in from Seattle, “because he was the only one who understood how the thing worked.” The client paid a hefty $500 a day.

As to the departure of mainframes, Hill says it is “going to have to happen. It depends on how long people can put it off.”

The downside of such a change, however, is that “when you switch to a new system, you run into complications,” Hill asserts. “No conversion works well.

“Everything is going Internet, and we must have the ability to interact with our old programs,” says Hill. Mainframes will be used “less and less, but they will survive just because of the sheer volume of data. We will still need the hardware, but the programs on the mainframes will have to change.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, May 13, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.