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Mainframe Goes Mobile

The ramifications of opening the mainframe to mobile devices

8/13/2012 4:04:22 AM | Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on mobility and the mainframe. It's based on content initially published in the SHARE President's Corner blog. For more, see "Ready, Set, Mobile!"

A shopper visits a high-end store and is helped by salespeople equipped with tablets that not only access the customer’s previous purchases—the better to coordinate the new item she might be considering—but can also place an order if an item isn’t in stock. Not only that, but in some cases, the salesperson could be sporting a tablet with an app the customer can use to select the style and other details of a suit. Then, the made-to-measure order is placed directly with the factory for tailoring.

It’s a thrilling step for mobile functionality from the retailer’s perspective. But what about the mainframe architect’s point of view? A casual observer might imagine such transactions are creating a highly variable load on back-end mainframe systems, but in fact they’re built for handling consumer-driven, variable workloads. Indeed, for decades, the mainframe quite ably served as the backend for many ATMs, web transactions and complex reservation operations, such as those used by airlines.

Adding mobile to the mix, “is not a significant sea change in terms of mainframe availability,” says Brian D. Peterson, vice president of the SHARE User Group. “You are putting a web browser in the hand of the consumer, so yes, that’s different for him or her. But for the mainframe there is no difference between a transaction sent from a mobile device or a home computer.”

That said, the proliferation of mobile devices and the number of transactions that consumers are ringing up through them aren’t a non-event for the mainframe.

“When we think of the mainframe we imagine something like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude,” says Laura DiDio, principal of ITIC—that is, it’s set up with near impenetrable barriers surrounding it and nothing disrupts its operations. “But, it still can be impacted by the changes brought about by mobile in varying ways, some of which can be quite subtle,” Didio emphasizes.

For example, she says, the consumerization of IT means everyone—customers, employees, suppliers and partners—expect 24-hour access to data. That means mainframe maintenance becomes a trickier proposition. Most customer-facing transactions are high-priority, so those are unlikely to be impacted; but internal development might.

The biggest change, though, will be the resulting new data from these mobile-led applications, DiDio says, and the mainframe will have to take the growing storage, analytics and processing needs into account. “You also have to consider the rise of unstructured data—now 80 percent of all data is unstructured,” DiDio says. Capacity planning will eventually be affected, with IT likely finding it must purchase more capacity on a more frequent basis.

Also, more transactions mean more audit trails and processing for audit trails—data that also must stored, and depending on the type of data there could be regulations governing this storage and retrieval.

Another point, albeit subtle, to consider: giving customers mobile access to corporate data—and thus the mainframe—will change their behavior. While that won’t directly impact the mainframe, the new trends should be incorporated in the monitoring of the system so that suspicious fluctuations can be more easily flagged.

Consider the changes to consumer behavior that mobile access to a simple checking account can bring, says Dennis O’Flynn, director of Mainframe Product Management, at Compuware.

“Whereas before they might wait to get home to check the account, now with their devices, they will do so at noon or 2 p.m., or whenever they have a moment during the day,” O’Flynn says. People might also be more inclined to jump on their accounts to make sure their checks went through on payday—frequently the 15th and 30th of every month—when their device makes it so convenient. Such issues, though, are only the start. What if an app goes suddenly and wildly viral?

The good news is that mobile apps are getting smarter and smarter in what they deliver to end users—an approach that benefits both the mainframe and customer, says Azita Arvani, principal of the Arvani Group.

“Mobile users don’t have to see a whole lot of information. They only need a small bit of information on the go, while doing other activities. So, mobile app writers are learning to give them less content while still taking care of their context.”

Erika Morphy has been writing about the business impact of technology for 20 years, covering finance, mobility, transportation, the supply chain, Web 2.0, enterprise software/cloud computing, online privacy issues, identity theft and online security.


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