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Thinking Aloud
Scrapping Big Metal
by Johan Peeters
August 16, 2004
How do you get rid of a mainframe? Don't let it become a monster that feeds off your fears.


My customer would like to move their back office off the mainframes. As the hardware became obsolete, disk images were moved to emulated machines on Solaris.

I want a mainframe staging environment for acceptance testing. It is to be identical to production except for modified code. Surely, management argues, this is throwing good money after bad. Since this technology is considered obsolete, investment was halted years ago. COBOL development is considered decidedly uncool and probably bad for your resumé. The know-how in their organization about the applications running on the big metal is concentrated in just a few individuals who do not feel appreciated.

Yet, the mainframe remains very much at the core. It interacts with just about every other system within the organization and with partners. If there is a trusted computing base in their mission-critical applications, this is it. Previous attempts to replace it have either aborted or had their scope reduced to cover only a fraction of the functionality.

The best guarantee for still being stuck with the mainframe in a decade or so is to continue this policy of disinvestment. In order to disentangle themselves, the customer needs to take control. They cannot do this without digging into the code again and setting up a staging environment. Only then will they be able to migrate applications piecemeal to alternative platforms.

Writing great software requires confidence. Not cookie confidence whipped up in a gung-ho fervour, but confidence grounded in experience and mastery of the technology you depend on. To reach this state of grace, take note of your fears and work on dispelling them. As Vera Peeters says: when you are afraid of something, do it more often. My customer's mainframe predicament calls for a complement to Vera's rule: when you are afraid of something, make sure you understand it.

I may be learning COBOL in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I salute that grande dame of computing, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. She would not have signed for anything uncool.

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About the Blogger

Johan Peeters is an independent software architect who spends a lot of time plumbing and generally fixing leaks.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2004 Johan Peeters. All rights reserved.

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