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Mainframes a Rock in a Cyber World Starved for Stability

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, September 21, 2009

I was very interested to see a recent article in Computerworld noting that IBM has been working hard to keep the mainframe computing paradigm interesting and attractive for IT managers.

According to the piece, the company has made its mainframes Linux- and Java-friendly to help them more easily interface with the cyber world we know today. IBM also has created a worldwide training program to teach students mainframe skills. The article demonstrates that such skills are still relevant by referring to a healthy number of mainframe-related postings on job sites such as Monster.com.

Always one to check these things out, I did my own searching. A nationwide search of jobs on Monster.com using the world “mainframe” yielded 918 hits, actually much higher than the 97 cited by Computerworld. About 5% of the listings were for insurance companies, and there were numerous listings for software and technology companies that serve the insurance space.

A similar search on Careerbuilder.com produced 639 job listings, and the percentage of insurance-related jobs was even higher. Both searches also yielded significant numbers of financial services jobs needing mainframe skills. This makes a lot of sense, since insurers were among the first adopters of mainframe technologies as far back as the 1960s.

But aren’t mainframes—often referred to as “big iron”—just over-sized clunkers that have long since outlived their usefulness? Apparently not, since companies seem eager to hire people who know how to use and service them. Perhaps it’s just that companies have spent a lot of money on those behemoths and they are determined to get every last drop of value out of them? Maybe, but IBM was boasting in June that it had sold 200 of its new, lower-end z800 mainframes in just two months.

In addition, a recent survey of mainframe-knowledgeable experts by IDC revealed the emergence of a blended, or hybrid, approach to computing on the IBM mainframe platform. "Customers are finding that new workloads, including Linux-based and Java-based workloads, can leverage the mainframe's built-in security and high levels of availability,” said Jean S. Bozman, research VP, IDC's Enterprise Platforms Group.

When searching for the reasons why the mainframe has not only survived, but thrived in a technological environment that seems eager to dismiss the paradigm, the words “built-in security” have an especially meaningful ring for the insurance and financial services industries. In fact, the Computerworld article quotes a senior vice president of mainframe engineering at Bank of America who describes mainframe systems, which handle the firm's most critical applications, as "very safe."

But isn’t it true that mainframe systems tend to house all those legacy applications that bog companies down in inefficiencies and limit their competitive position? Yes, that is true, but it is also true that IBM and many others have built middleware bridges that address many of these problems while allowing the big iron to stay in place.

This is not to say that the mainframe environment is the complete answer for insurance companies and others in the industry. Certainly, other platforms offer distinct advantages in terms of flexibility and the sheer number of software programs available off the shelf. That said, there still remains a place for the mainframe in insurance IT shops, and that very much justified aura of safety that surrounds those “old clunkers” is somehow reassuring in this very risky time for the interconnected world.

Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services. He can be reached at ara@aratremblytechnology.com.

The opinions posted in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News or SourceMedia.

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