Old mainframe code meets the modern age

Bob DiAngelo, vice-president and CIO at MIB Group Inc., is facing the challenge of migrating off the mainframe. His company relies on an I/O-intensive application used to detect insurance fraud for more than 500 insurers in North America.

DiAngelo said it was impossible to hire anyone to support MIB Group’s IBM mainframe applications, originally written in 1969 in assembler with a back-end VSAM database. So a few years ago, he received approval to re-engineer the system. The IT team is developing the new system in Java based on a three-tiered architecture using WebSphere MQSeries and DB2.

But the new system, now halfway complete, doesn’t run on Unix or Windows hardware. It, along with the systems still in production and the development and quality assurance testing environments, all run within a single logical partition on a 210 MIPS uniprocessor IBM zSeries 880 with a z/OS Application Assist Processor (zAAP) that handles the Java workload.

The new Java code runs on a zAAP. Keeping the applications off the mainframe processor keeps CPU-based licensing for third-party applications from rising while boosting the total system capacity to 366 MIPS. But DiAngelo doesn’t have a lot of third-party software to worry about. He said declining mainframe operating costs have allowed the company to grow from an 80 MIPS system to the 210 MIPS box plus the zAAP processor while total costs remained “relatively stable.”

Walker isn’t convinced. “We could run Java code in a z9, but it would make it the world’s most expensive Java CPU,” he said. Barnett agrees — partially.

“If you have Java or workloads that need high-speed access to mainframe data, running it on a mainframe partition is a viable choice,” he said. “But…for generic Linux or Java workloads, it still isn’t an obvious consolidation platform.” IBM is hoping that others will follow MIB Group’s example. “IBM is pushing one box, multiple architectures,” said Gartner’s Vecchio.

Guru Rao, an IBM fellow and chief engineer for eServer, said consolidating a three-tiered architecture on the mainframe when data resides there makes sense because communications between the front and back end don’t have to go over a latency-prone TCP/IP network. On the mainframe, he said, “you can communicate with each of these spaces using instructions as opposed to TCP traffic.”

DiAngelo acknowledges that rewriting applications isn’t always practical. “Doing a rip-and-replace is a big thing,” he said of the five-year project. “There are things you can’t afford to re-engineer, and they will probably always sit in the place where they were developed.”

The transition also requires more horsepower for an application that consumes up to 300 I/Os per transaction and up to 130,000 transactions per day. “Java requires more CPU power than assembler, and as you move from proprietary VSAM to a generated database system, you lose efficiencies. With WebSphere, MQSeries and DB2, you have to crank the dial up,” DiAngelo said.

Another question is whether that strategy will scale for applications beyond a few hundred MIPS in size, said Vecchio. On the high end, IT must move to SOA because there are no other options, he said. “The hope for mainframe customers is that WebSphere and Java can perform with the same quality of service that they have come to expect from CICS, IMS and Cobol,” he said.

Publicis Group SA moved entirely off of an MVS mainframe and onto an open system. The advertising agency deployed high-density Hewlett-Packard Co. blade servers and VMware Inc. partitions to increase utilization levels.

It migrated the primary application — a financial reporting system that included client billing, ERP and reporting that amounted to 80 per cent of the mainframe workload — to PeopleSoft. Other applications were either ported or retooled entirely, said CIO Christian Anschuetz. “It was a Herculean effort, to be sure,” he said of the four-year project.

His main motivation was cost. The mainframe was “extraordinarily expensive” and not agile enough for the organization’s needs, Anschuetz said, and “the licensing costs associated with the development tools were just astronomical.” Publicis has reduced its operating costs by 10 per cent a year.

Even after considering the management costs of a distributed system and the cost of the Intel servers needed to replace the mainframe, the total cost of ownership was still “dramatically lower,” Anschuetz said.

He added that he did have concerns about moving off the mainframe. “I remember someone telling me we shouldn’t get rid of the mainframe, it’s Five Nines, and you’re going to be running this Windows junk,” Anschuetz said. “The reality is that [our distributed systems] are up all of the time, and our actual [mean time between failures] is tremendous.”

When it comes to dealing with legacy applications, there are no across-the-board answers, said Robert Rosen, president of Share, a Chicago-based IBM mainframe user group. “Where you get into trouble is when you try to force-fit a solution,” he said. “Taking the best of both worlds, that’s the key.”

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