Cloud and mobile have been getting all the attention. Their developers are lauded as wizards of the digital realm, amazing executives with new and innovative customer experiences.
Meanwhile, mainframe applications are some of the most business-critical workloads on the planet, working quietly in the background enabling the world to transact without fail. And the people who keep them and their businesses running remain unsung heroes in most organizations.
Mainframes enable business leaders to sleep well at night by delivering rock-solid reliability, compliance, and security. These proven “engines of business” optimize supply chains, process customer requests, and keep the lifeblood of business (i.e., revenues) flowing in an extremely cost-efficient way.
While new experiences are vital, so are trustworthy transactions and data. Let’s remember to thank mainframe programmers for delivering real economic value reliably and safely!
With applications so critical and so optimized, the tendency to limit code changes is natural. While cloud teams operate with a “fail fast” mantra, mainframe teams march to a very different beat: “never fail.”
Monolithic application architectures only magnify this tendency. Jenga® anyone?
However, mainframe teams understand the need for increased business agility, which necessitates more frequent and more comprehensive changes.
Application Vitality vs. Application Modernization
Application modernization is a trendy term with a fluid definition as organizations often morph the term to serve their needs. A bunch of “R” words that represent a mind-boggling spectrum are often used in app modernization discussions: rehost, re-platform, refactor, repackage, re-architect, rebuild, rewrite, replace.
At one end of the spectrum, it can mean simply catching up on technical debt, but cloud vendors, for example, have co-opted the term to mean moving applications to their platforms. The term now, in my view, has an inherent platform migration bias.
For mainframe professionals seeking to be more responsive to business change, a better term is “application vitality.”
“Modern” strives to be cool for the sake of being cool. “Vital” strives to advance the business.
Two structural changes are driving the need for increased application vitality of mainframe applications:
New digital technologies are changing the expectations of customers and business leaders alike across industries. New, digital-native market entrants often force a reexamination of transaction flows and even business models.
Equally important is AI, which has reached a tipping point for large organizations. Mainframe applications offer extraordinary business potential when paired with AI. They contain the “data insights” perfect for training AI applications and stand to benefit from AI infusion. According to many, Large Language Models (LLMs) will drive transactions.
Teams can achieve a new level of application vitality to meet these needs by empowering mainframe developers through the following:
1. Automate low-value work
This is the low-hanging fruit: Provide developers with access to high-productivity tools that enable them to automate time-consuming and burdensome work (mundane tasks that must be completed but don’t make the best use of developers’ skills) wherever possible. Developer platforms offer the biggest impact. Developers spend much of their day in their development environments, so automating work done in these tools will have the biggest ROI.
With the free and open Code4z extension pack, VS Code is now a compelling option for mainframe developers. The experience now supports the full SDLC, and mainframe developers are embracing the opportunity to be more productive. Get started with this handy glossary/FAQ.
Developer velocity is the key to application vitality, and VS Code is the key to developer velocity.
2. Mitigate software delivery risk
Change is inherently risky, but this risk can be largely mitigated with processes that enforce quality (quality at the core). Code scanning, continuous integration, and continuous testing are just some of the techniques mainframe teams can use as part of their CI/CD pipelines to enforce shift-left quality. Many of the use cases highlighted in the AppDev modernization roadmap tool address this critical structural change.
Well-architected and trustworthy code changes fuel a virtuous cycle of elevated confidence in change, resulting in new levels of application vitality.
3. Explore the “art of the possible”
Once you’ve removed the toil and freed developers to work on higher-order problems and opportunities with a risk-managed process, follow through by empowering them to experiment. Partner with product owners and application architects to explore the low-risk possibilities that can reasonably be achieved. This does not mean investing cycles in a wide-eyed exploration of what's ideal/perfect/best. Instead, it's about what you can actually get done within budget.
Equip developers with the right toolset, processes, and objectives within this vitality framework.
Enable the shift from being the chief stewards of applications to becoming fighter pilots who help their organizations win fiercely contested markets.
The best way to counter those who paint the cloud as a panacea for every problem is to demonstrate just how dynamic mainframe applications in empowered hands can be.
Introduce a new era of application vitality, where it is as easy to develop on and automate the mainframe as any other platform.
As one of our customers likes to remind us, “Let’s make mainframe a platform of YES!”