Modernizing Mainframes: A Discussion with Senior Architects

Agile Architects is a company that specializes in providing enterprise architecture expertise to a range of clients. They have helped numerous organizations achieve digital transformation tracks and optimize their IT infrastructure. Today, we have the privilege of speaking to two of their most experienced architects, Patrik Schrey and Rudi Maelbrancke.

Patrik and Rudi have years of experience handling some of the toughest challenges in the IT industry. They are ideally suited to handle one of the hardest jobs for an architect: modernizing mainframe systems. In this article, we will explore the insights and experiences of these two experts, as they share their thoughts on the challenges and potential pitfalls of modernizing mainframes.

Setting the scene

Patrik Schrey and Rudi Maelbrancke share a common goal: to modernize mainframe systems for their respective clients. However, they operate in different contexts, with Patrik handling payroll preparation for public workers, while Rudi is focused on supply chain management.

The mainframe in Patrik’s scope is over 30 years old, using COBOL. Due to its age, generations of software paradigms and technologies are visible in the code. With more than 200,000 public workers to process payroll for every month, this system must be able to handle large amounts of data quickly and accurately. However, the lack of skilled workers in mainframe technologies and the high costs of maintaining the current system have made modernization a necessity.

Patrik Schrey stated, “Their system had become more and more outdated over the years. Not enough people are available to make adjustments in the system, which has led to more and more exceptions popping up that require manual processing of people’s file data. Today, almost 60% of the file changes need manual review because the system isn’t able to handle them automatically.”

In contrast, the mainframe system in Rudi’s scope handles supply chain management for a large petrochemical organization. Rudi Maelbrancke emphasized that mainframes are highly capable machines for the tasks they are performing and, therefore, hard to replace. “Mainframes are excellent at IPO – Input, Processing, Output, which makes them highly efficient and effective,” he said. However, he also acknowledged that mainframes are no longer cost-effective and lack skilled workers in mainframe technologies, which necessitates modernisation.

Getting Going

Patrik and Rudi’s approach to modernizing their mainframe systems is grounded in their years of experience as architects. While they have different systems and contexts to work with, they share similar approaches to tackling this challenging task.

Patrik’s first assignment was to convince everyone that a big bang approach to modernization was impossible due to the complexity of the system and the political context, and therefore, a phased approach to modernization had to be taken. His approach is to focus on the added value and to ensure that the solution architect understands the specific requirements and limitations of the system. Patrik believes that a value-driven approach is crucial to ensuring that the modernization process fits the needs of the organization and its users.

Part of Rudi’s approach is to “peel the onion“. By this, he means that he tries to peel back layers of complexity and isolate them. This approach allows him to identify the critical components of the system that need to be modernized and then focus on those areas. Rudi mentions that banks have applied this approach with varying degrees of success: most still have a mainframe core that handles crucial transactions, but ‘peeling the onion’ has allowed them to reduce the responsibilities and complexity of their mainframe systems.

Both Patrik and Rudi agree that integration is key, and forming agreements between parties is crucial. When two parties can’t make agreements directly, sometimes their role is to enforce agreements. The goal is to ensure that everyone involved in the process is on the same page and working towards a common goal, and that sometimes means limiting the freedom of movement for developers and/or vendors.

Potential Pitfalls

Modernizing mainframe systems is a challenging task that requires careful planning and execution. While Patrik and Rudi have years of experience in this field, they acknowledge that there are potential pitfalls to be aware of. Some of the common pitfalls that they have encountered include:

  • Focusing too much on functional overhaul and neglecting architectural discussions: Many organizations focus on functional change requirements without paying enough attention to architectural discussions. This approach can result in the implementation of new systems that are not compatible with existing ones.
  • Allowing too much freedom of movement for vendors and developers: It’s important to limit the freedom of movement for vendors and developers to ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal. Allowing too much freedom can lead to misaligned objectives and delays.
  • Failing to prioritize integration: Integration is crucial when modernizing mainframe systems. Failing to prioritize integration can result in the implementation of systems that are not compatible with existing ones. It’s essential to ensure that all systems, both digital and human, can communicate with each other seamlessly.
  • Lack of skilled workers in mainframe technologies: The lack of skilled workers in mainframe technologies can make the modernization process more challenging. It’s essential to ensure that the team responsible for modernization has the necessary skills and expertise in both the new and old systems.
  • In the initial stages of refactoring, businesses may not experience immediate relief from their burdens. They may have to reiterate their business rules and contend with systems that are inferior to their original ones. The key challenge is to ensure that the business derives significant benefits right from the outset of the refactoring process.
Closing Comments

Modernizing mainframe systems is a complex and challenging task that requires careful planning and execution. Despite the challenges, both Patrik and Rudi believe that modernizing mainframe systems is essential for organizations to stay competitive and meet the needs of their customers. By leveraging modern technologies and approaches, organizations can improve efficiency, reduce costs, and provide better services to their customers.

Agile Architects is a company specializing in providing enterprise architecture expertise to help organizations modernize their IT systems. With ample experience in modernizing mainframe systems, Agile Architects can help organizations navigate the complexities of the modernization process and ensure that they achieve their goals. 

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