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  • Scott Pasho

Modernize or Migrate? That is the Question…

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Organizations that have implemented mainframe computing solutions in the past have two viable IT options as time passes and technology evolves. One option is to keep their systems in synch through modernization – adding current application software, firmware and tangential hardware – to integrate newer features and benefits into existing platforms. Alternatively, they can move away from their existing systems and migrate to a new platform. We’ll take into consideration the challenges (as well as the pros and cons) of these choices as we examine some of the factors to consider when deciding upon which path to take:

• System Upgrade Requirements to Address Ongoing Business Needs • Costs & Resources Needed to Continually Meet Business Goals • Clearly Defined Strategy & Road Map to Correctly Guide Efforts

Your System Now – Keeping Ahead of Obsolescence

One of the main considerations in the question of whether to Modernize or Migrate a mainframe system such as an IBM or HPE NonStop Server, is to take a close look at the current level of technology of your systems, as well as what will be asked of them in the future. Have they been kept relatively current, where some modernization of communication and data protocols will meet the goals, or is a more comprehensive overhaul needed to address current and future business needs – where migration might be a better option?

Mainframe shops need to make ongoing decisions regarding whether to modernize by adding service oriented architecture (SOA) interfaces, rewriting applications, or alternatively whether to migrate to a new platform altogether. CIO’s in charge of legacy systems need to conduct a thorough analysis to determine the company’s future computing requirements – to develop a clear strategy and roadmap for their IT systems and resources. If not, IT may “bolt on” myriad add-ons and work-a-rounds that aren’t architecturally sound in an effort to keep systems functioning and technically current. This approach can lead to unintended consequences (and costs) and much effort to redo and repair the situation in the future.

Modernization gives users of legacy systems the ability integrate disparate computing technologies for seamless and secure data exporting, sharing and reporting – via a wide variety of communication protocols including Web, standard document formats, email and print or fax. Modernization also provides for more current technologies to be implemented such as Web-based reporting interfaces to display and better utilize mainframe data rather than in older outdated user interfaces.

Leveraging modernization innovations also provides powerful business tools as well; enabling real-time business intelligence through integrated data delivery and analysis. The inherent data security via this methodology is also a boon to organizations where information must be kept private including healthcare, financial services and for online and in-store retail transactions.

Migration, on the other hand, may be the best solution for some organizations, particularly if a great deal of mainframe capacity isn’t currently being used – making it easier to transition. Both UNIX and Windows platform options are becoming ever more capable of matching mainframe performance, and CIO’s should consider these viable options if the decision is to migrate.

Costs, Resources & Meeting Business Goals

Routine mainframe maintenance costs and the IT resources required to sustain these systems must be ongoing considerations. Modernizing existing legacy applications to leverage today’s software technologies must be weighed against mainframe migration; either of which may dramatically reduce IT costs, as well as improve system performance and application quality. So which path should an organization choose?

Integrating Web services into legacy applications through modernization provides new e-business features, while cutting administrative and development costs. Web-servicing these applications also simplifies the existing e-business architecture – while providing increased flexibility.

Frequently, an organization will define business-critical mainframe applications as untouchable save for routine maintenance. IT must buy into any application modernization strategy – clearly understanding the costs, benefits, goals and implementation roadmap. The costs and ramifications of not modernizing applications can easily snowball – growing into an even larger issue down the road.

Migration of applications to a new platform can offer clear technological advantages and cost savings for some organizations – particularly small and medium scale shops with fewer than 20 applications installed – due to the architecture’s lower acquisition and software license costs. If the mainframe is supporting 20 or more applications however, there is cost savings by going the modernization route.

Another item to note when considering modernization versus migration is the application development environment. For instance, applications developed in COBOL, C as well as SQL-based programs are much more easily converted into new languages such as Java or C#, lending them better to migration. Flat file-based databases, assembler-based or proprietary language-based apps on the other hand, are not as well supported, and thereby are much more prone to modernization.

The risks and costs of moving critical mainframe applications to UNIX, Windows or another platform must also be taken into account. Highly-customized legacy applications may not be able to be easily copied from one computing environment to another. Much of the code may have to be rewritten, not only a big time factor, but also a potential issue for application performance and optimization. In these cases, often “upgrading in place” (modernization in other words) makes the most sense.

Mainframe Web Services & Cloud Computing – Yes, it can

Mainframes have great potential for Web services and cloud computing – enabling IT departments to make legacy mainframe applications available to the entire internal organization, as well as customers and partners around the world. Web services inherent functionality including security, business compliance and personalization make the mainframe application much more feature-rich. And, information stored in a repository, gives administrators a common database for easy monitoring, troubleshooting and enhanced legacy applications.

The addition of cloud computing into a mainframe environment complements Web services – making mainframe applications even more flexible. Even if a cloud doesn’t contain a mainframe, IT can move applications within a remote cloud, as well as balance load capacities on demand. These technical advantages lead to overall business benefits as well including:

  • Utilizing applications more effectively for greater efficiency

  • Scaling distributed applications across the Web

  • Adaptability to changing computing environment conditions

Criteria & Considerations for Upgrading Mainframe Applications

Whether modernizing or migrating mainframe applications, several criteria should be considered including application functionality and flexibility, as well as technology risk and cost factors. Any roadmap developed to approach this project should incorporate the following steps:

  • Establish ownership and responsibility of all IT components:

    • Programming languages

    • Data Infrastructure

    • Application infrastructure and security

    • Output, content and report management

    • Development, test and QA infrastructure

    • Disaster recovery planning

    • Application migration/modernization architecture

    • Analysis & design – define unique requirements and target environment

    • Define project management & solution architecture – for comprehensive functionality

    • Apply & assign problem resolution/testing processes

    • Adopt an incident tracking protocol

    • Plan for cost savings and functionality improvements and track progress

The proliferation of the Internet and cloud computing have made it easier for organizations to Web-enable their applications, adding cost-effective and easy-to-implement applications to mainframe systems; as well as the ability to integrate cloud computing with minimal impact on the enterprises production environment. Firms, whether modernizing or migrating their systems, realize measurable gains in their business processes including: IT cost reductions – and improvements in development productivity, system performance and application quality and usability – all to the betterment of their customer service and bottom line.


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Scott Pasho has over 20 years marketing communications management & copywriting experience in diverse industries including high technology (software, hardware, IT), healthcare, & financial services. General manager of a boutique advertising agency for three years, and founded my own agency in 2004.

Specialties: Ability to creatively position products and services through collateral materials for BtoB and BtoC audiences.


TIC Software, a New York-based company specializing in software and services that integrate NonStop with the latest technologies, including Web Services, .NET and Java. Prior to founding TIC in 1983, Phil worked for Tandem Computer in technical support and software development.




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