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Heading into 2020, organizations were facing unprecedented rates of change in application volumes, transaction volumes, and environmental complexity—then the pandemic disrupted business operations around the world, forcing companies to rethink their business models and adjust to an even more rapidly changing digital environment. Suddenly, online and mobile applications were indispensable for work, study, and the purchase of essential items, dramatically changing the digital requirements of manufacturing, distribution, and retail businesses, as well as the infrastructure and supply chain companies behind them. The mainframe, with its tremendous capacity to process high-volume transactions and handle complex data, stood steady during this time of disruption.
Despite the recent trend toward transitioning workloads to the cloud, the mainframe continues to serve as the back-end system of record for many core industries, including retail, insurance, finance, and banking.
An Opportunity for Assessment
Market demands for new services and applications show no signs of decreasing, highlighting the need for high-quality, quickly produced, cross-platform applications that utilize the mainframe as the system of record. In this environment, the release of new features can't be hampered by mainframe development that lags behind other platforms. For organizations to remain competitive, development on the mainframe must keep pace with the rest of enterprise IT.
And so, the mainframe is at a critical point in its history, playing a crucial role in the digital transformation of organizations just as it faces a changing workforce and the introduction of new tooling and processes that can help it reach its full potential. What, then, is the role for the mainframe in the modern digital economy and what are the strengths, challenges, and attitudes that will affect it?
Earlier this year, BMC commissioned Forrester Research to survey mainframe developers in an attempt to gauge their opinions on the strengths and challenges of developing on the platform. Their responses confirmed the importance of the mainframe but also reflected a belief that there is work to be done to ensure the platform's ability to keep pace with rapidly changing digital demand.
The Mainframe Is Strong, But the Development Experience Needs Improvement
76% of developers surveyed responded that the mainframe is of utmost importance to their organization, with 58% stating that their organization's IT infrastructure relies on the platform. This is of little surprise, considering the mainframe's role as the system of record and increasing integration with front-end applications.
These integrations require that development teams develop and maintain systems on multiple platforms. The Forrester study shows that, despite the importance of the platform, developer experience on the mainframe is subpar when compared with these other systems, with 58% finding it worse than work on mobile-based systems, 52% saying it's worse than on-premises workloads, 48% reporting that it's worse than web servers, and 45% saying it's worse than cloud-native.
Relying on tools and processes that are unique to the mainframe negatively impacts the recruitment of new talent and lengthens the time it takes for new developers to become comfortable on the platform. The use of ISPF development environments, manual testing and deployment practices, and waterfall development keeps the mainframe siloed and reinforces negative perceptions of the platform that make it difficult for organizations to replace retiring developers.
Powerful Tools for a Powerful Platform
An inferior developer experience not only presents challenges to the acquisition and retention of top talent, it hinders productivity and innovation. With its importance to the enterprise IT ecosystem and its role in the rapidly accelerating digital economy, the mainframe cannot afford to be the weak link in the development of new services and applications. The quality, velocity, and efficiency of development on the platform must keep pace with other platforms. Still, 8 out of 10 developers reported that their organizations' mainframe tools need significant improvements to be more effective.
Integration of the mainframe with the enterprise DevOps toolchain enables organizations to meet these challenges. Employing a modern integrated development environment (IDE), for example, allows developers to find and manage code more efficiently, and the ability to work in a familiar environment makes the mainframe more accessible, lowering the barrier of entry for new developers and reducing the time spent on their onboarding.
Modern source code management provides better version control and an audit trail of changes while helping development teams with compliance and risk reduction.
Automation of common software development tasks gives developers more time to spend on writing high-quality, innovative code while also increasing operational stability. Automated testing not only results in higher-quality code, it also alerts developers to defects earlier in the software development lifecycle, when they are easier to find and fix.
And the list goes on, with modern development tools providing easier cross-platform integration, better end-to-end visibility, enhanced collection and analysis of metrics, and more.
A Bright Future
The Forrester study shows that 35% of organizations have modernized their mainframe applications, with another 31% currently in the process and 20% planning to modernize within the next two years. And as these organizations modernize, developers forecast positive outcomes, with 77% saying that modernized mainframe development will increase development velocity by 18% and nearly two-thirds saying application quality will increase by 23%.
The mainframe is the heart of the digital economy, and developers on the platform are central to its success. By giving these professionals the tools and environment they need to prosper and succeed, organizations can ensure that they remain competitive and able to respond to whatever disruptions may come next.
Sam Knutson is AVP of product management for BMC. His past positions include vice president of product management for mainframe performance solutions at CA Technologies, System z team leader for GEICO, and senior developer at Landmark Systems. Sam has served on the Board of Directors for SHARE, the world’s first and longest-running user computer group, and he is a distinguished member of the mainframe community. He holds a B.S. in computer science from DeVry Institute of Technology. Sam is an avid trail runner and marathoner.