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AWS unveils a new mainframe modernisation toolkit at Re:Invent, but what’s really new?

Among the flurry of new products this week from its annual Re:Invent conference is a AWS mainframe modernisation toolkit designed to help encourage large enterprise customers get “legacy” applications off Big Iron and onto Big Cloud. The big idea, which mainframe users will have heard before: refactoring critical applications for a more modern environment that makes it easier to integrate improved data analytics, mobile capabilities, or other such wonders of this decade. (A development pipeline that requires a mainframe is still typically an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Peeling even limited elements off legacy applications running on mainframes for testing opens up opportunities for agility improvements and cost savings.)

AWS Mainframe Modernization “enables… replatforming and automated refactoring. You can assess and analyze migration readiness and plan projects. Mainframe Modernization provides the development, build, and test tools for modernization projects. Once implemented and tested, you can deploy your mainframe workloads to AWS into the Mainframe Modernization managed runtime environment” a dedicated page for the service said.

If there was fresh magic lurking in the AWS mainframe modernisation toolkit, it was well hidden, however. (Indeed, it appears to rely quite heavily on the well established Micro Focus enterprise analyser, albeit bundling that into a suite of integrated tools spanning initial planning to post-migration cloud operations.)

Capabilities listed on the product page include “automated and manual refactoring capabilities to accelerate the modernization of mainframe and legacy assets. You can use refactoring to convert legacy application programming languages, to create macroservices or microservices, and to modernize user interfaces (UIs) and application software stacks” — something a competent partner would have been able to do for some years.

The AWS mainframe modernisation page meanwhile leads to an “AWS Migration Acceleration Program (MAP) for Mainframe” page which, in turn, showcases an enterprise case study dating back to 2016 – when the UK’s DVSA swapped mainframe for cloud across its MOT application, which is used by 43,000 garages. There’s even a circular link (“features” > “learn about pricing” brings you back to “features”). For a big announcement at the major annual event of a multi, multi-billion company, we found this one a touch disappointing. Sniff.

As case studies of application modernisation go, the DVSA’s is a good one: the previous application securely processed 42 million transactions a year but was based on a mainframe accessed via dial-up modem (yes, in 2015) from specialist equipment in the garages and had had just one hardware refresh in 10 years. Updates required considerable downtime meanwhile. In the following 12 months after bringing it to x86 servers running in AWS’s cloud, the DVSA was able to make 168 updates without taking the application offline at all.

AWS Mainframe Modernization: Where's the fresh magic hiding?

But in terms of capabilities that might give CIOs pause for thought when it comes to reviewing mainframe applications afresh, The Stack saw little that stood out in the AWS Mainframe Modernization offering.

Mainframe application modernisation: it can be done well…

The mainframe is a unique hardware architecture; typically now supporting both a legacy operating environment including applications written in languages like COBOL, and a modern Linux operating environment perfectly capable of running modern and virtualised applications in a legacy partition. It’s the former, of course, that continue to pose some challenges for IT leaders — although many are also perfectly happy with the reliability and sheer firepower of “Big Iron”, even if it is a royal pain working on such applications (which can span millions of lines of COBOL, sometimes undocumented; often at the very heart of major enterprises like banks and airlines.)

Many users are looking carefully towards the future however, particularly amid a skills shortage.

As LzLabs’ Executive Chairman Mark Cresswell noted to The Stack earlier this year: “We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of organisations looking to migrate off their legacy mainframes. It seems the pandemic has exacerbated the existing mainframe skills shortage. During the first wave earlier this year, a lot of companies took the opportunity to accelerate early retirement and voluntary redundancy programmes. The majority of people who took advantage of those were employees that were close to retirement anyway.

“This disproportionately affected their mainframe systems administration teams, so now companies find themselves in a situation where they have fewer staff available to support these critical platforms than they would otherwise have had. Mainframe development environments are complex and idiosyncratic, so the skills necessary to maintain the platform and applications were already thin on the ground. The acceleration of these skills leaving the business has been the tipping point for organisations to seriously consider moving…”

“It’s now possible to take the applications exactly as they were, without any of the historical recompilation and data type risk, and run them on x86 – it’s much easier than before”, he said, adding “People like to work on new, cutting edge applications rather than mess with something you thought you’d fixed 30 years ago. But the idea that someone can rewrite all that legacy code, built up over decades, with a modern cloud native environment in any timeframe that matters, is fanciful. People have tried the re-engineering and re-factoring approach and it has only ever worked on the fringes.”

A 2020 Forrester study for Deloitte of IT and business leaders within organisations that use the mainframe meanwhile found 74% saying they think it has long-term viability as a strategic platform for their organisation.

UNICOM’s Neil Evans told us earlier this year that “ideally you want to optimise the use of the mainframe, by adding some business logic placed within a middleware layer using technologies such as WebSphere, APIs and JAVA. This middleware can take away all the other processing that is required to deliver the customer experience, leaving the mainframe to only execute the transactions… Importantly, this means you are creating new applications which then communicate with the back-end systems on the mainframe. So, you are not directly modernising or interfering with the core system at all.”

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Ed Targett

Ed Targett is the founder of The Stack. He previously served as editor of Tech Monitor, Computer Business Review, and Roubini Global Economics. He has 15 years of experience in newsrooms and consultancies and an unrivalled network. His interests span technology, foreign policy, and sustainability. You can reach him on [email protected]

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