Mainframes can seem like an anachronism in a fast-evolving technology industry that is increasingly fixated on cheap, commodity hardware supporting open source software. But more than 70 percent of commercial transactions occur on systems which, in many cases, were built back in the sixties or seventies. Numerous large UK banks, for example, are heavily reliant on mainframes for systems of record.
Yet, while considered robust and reliable for certain uses, mainframes are costly to maintain and difficult to support, particularly due to the imminent retirement of those with knowledge of a system's inner workings.
These problems are compounded by the considerable difficulty involved in moving a mission critical application onto modern infrastructure - a process often referred to as similar to replacing a jet engine mid-flight.
But LzLabs, which came out of stealth mode earlier this year, claims its tools can enable businesses to do just that, porting mainframe applications to run on Linux based x86 hardware in a fraction of the time that typical migrations, says CEO Mark Cresswell.
Its proposition is centred around what it calls the 'software defined mainframe' which allows mainframes applications to run on x86-based Linux servers.
"We realised that we had to solve some of those very thorny problems and create an environment that ran on Linux x86 and behaved exactly the same way as a legacy mainframe would," Cresswell told ComputerworldUK.
"That is what the software defined mainframe is - a managed container running on Linux that behaves exactly the same in almost every way as the mainframe environment that we are moving the applications from."
Cobol skills disappearing
The need to migrate mainframe applications is principally driven by a lack of expertise around programming languages, such as Cobol and PL/1.
"If you look back at the peak of activity in the seventies and eighties, the people that were writing those programmes and generating the billions of lines of COBOL code, have for the most part retired now. And for those that were at the younger end, the boomers, they can see retirement in the very near future," says Cresswell, adding that those on the cusp of a career in IT are more likely to be getting to grips with much newer programming languages.
This scarcity of relevant skills makes it difficult to continue to support mainframe applications. "Maintaining computing programmes without the institutional knowledge of how they work is incredibly difficult, and enhancing them to support new business opportunities is nigh on impossible, so you have these very large organisations that are utterly dependent upon decades-old programmers with no one to maintain or enhance them."
With large businesses increasingly relying on digital services, the constraints of legacy technology can be a huge obstacle, particularly when faced with new challenges unencumbered by dated infrastructure.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.