Over the course of the last decade there has been considerable discussion about the future development and use of the revered Mainframe platform, usually now to be found under the IBM System z banner. At times much that has been written has not flattered the mainframe but that may be about to change. Whilst the platform is still by no means cheap in absolute Dollar, Sterling or Euro terms there is usually an array of financing options available to help meet most potential scenarios. Beyond that, the platform usually manages to compare favourably when its scale, management and overall TCO estimates are calculated.

There is absolutely no doubting IBM's commitment to the platform. The company continues to invest large sums of money and resources developing the mainframe in both the hardware and software platforms, just witness the development of various offload engines (IFL, zIIP, Zaap) and software tools. Equally it is important to recognise that there is a very active community built around the mainframe and it is clear that the majority of these are also committed to developing their offerings further. To see that this is the case one has simply to look at how companies such as CA and BMC are developing their complementary management tools, as well activities by application ISVs such as ACI who are now robustly promoting mainframe based solutions. The mainframe vendor ecosystem is large and active.

Clearly there are challenges that organisations using the mainframe need to address. Perhaps the most visible of these concerns the age of those currently administering these enterprise workhorses. In many cases these highly skilled professionals are in the age bracket where considerations of retirement are not far away. Given the skills required to run mainframes this is causing some concerns but there is now an active education programme in place to tempt students and those new to IT to acquire mainframe skills. At the same time the overall management workload is easing as IBM, CA and other vendors deliver new tools to the market to help reduce the workload burden further. In some ways this is somewhat ironic as several studies have indicated that mainframe administrators can already handle far larger workloads than administrators of other platforms.

But the debate on the future of the mainframe should not be focussed so much on the development of the technology itself or how to ensure that skilled administrators are available to run the systems. Instead it should now focus on what role the mainframe has going forward to deliver business services? To understand this it is important that people understand just what type of system the Mainframe is today and what business operations it can assist. In some places this "understanding" may be several years behind reality and is often linked to out of date perceptions of where things fit. Challenging these perceptions takes time and effort. The challenge for IBM and its ecosystem of suppliers is to assist in perception resetting, especially helping to update the understanding of the potential use of mainframes amongst both the wider IT community and amongst business managers.

The mainframe continues to grow both in terms of its capabilities, the community around it and, indeed, in the scale of its deployment. It is clear that the platform has the capacity to deliver an expanding range of IT services cost effectively and the challenge for IBM and the wider mainframe ecosystem is to ensure that organisations understand where its capabilities can be most effectively deployed. The development of the mainframe as a platform over the last few years is now matched by changes in the wider economic environment to make now a very good time for IBM and its partners to make a serious effort to communicate widely on what the modern mainframe is all about and to help replace any out of date perceptions that may still be out there.

By Tony Lock, programme director at Freeform Dynamics