Mainframe at your service
Service-oriented architecture is making big iron a first-class player — again
- By Rutrell Yasin
- Jul 10, 2006
When officials in Tarrant County, Texas, decided to implement a service-
oriented architecture two years ago, their goal was to link a multitude of information technology systems that didn’t communicate with each other. But they didn’t think their mainframe computer would remain a part of that equation.
It turns out that they, like many others, misjudged the mainframe’s prospects. “The mainframe now is the predominant first-class citizen in the environment, to a point where we’re buying another one next year,” said Steve Smith, chief information officer for the county, which has a population of 1.8 million people. Fort Worth is the county seat.
Why the change of heart? The mainframe turned out to be the most cost-effective solution for moving and processing data, and it has a high level of security and reliability, Smith said.
Once written off as relics of a bygone era, mainframe computers are making a resurgence sparked in part by the push toward service-oriented architecture. SOA provides a framework for developing software components to manage data communications among different systems.
The future of the mainframe looked grim in the 1990s, as a wave of inexpensive, industry-standard servers powered the rise of a more nimble, client/server distributed computing architecture. Pundits began writing epitaphs for the big iron mainframe systems, which were best known for their seemingly old-fashioned, centralized processing of big workloads.
But the pendulum began to swing back in the mainframe’s favor with the approach of the new millennium, as IT managers realized that the mainframe has few equals when it comes to reliability and security. Also helping the image makeover was IBM’s launch in 2000 of a trimmer and more agile mainframe, the zSeries, running an updated operating system, the z/OS.
With the advent of SOA and new standards for software interoperability such as those in the Web services family of protocols, managers in businesses and government agencies want to take advantage of their huge investments in high-end computers by extending mission-critical mainframe applications to these new mixed computing environments.
No longer can mainframes be considered second-class citizens in a distributed computing environment, relegated to just batch processing jobs or serving as a storage site for massive amounts of vital data.
Mainframe users, industry analysts, IBM and independent software vendors all see a new role for mainframes in the SOA paradigm, although their views vary on the exact nature of that role.
IBM officials view the mainframe as bedrock for building out SOA, because creating and deploying new software services put new demands on network performance and security — traditional strong suits of the mainframe.
“Mainframes, which process much of the world’s most strategic information and applications, are now finding second careers as the hub for SOA,” said Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive of IBM’s Software Group, in a May press release announcing new software and initiatives to help developers build SOA-ready mainframe applications.
But being a hub doesn’t mean that the mainframe will become the place where all service requests from other systems will be routed, said Dale Vecchio, a research vice president at Gartner.
“On the other hand, service-oriented architecture as a modernization strategy for mainframe applications is absolutely occurring,” Vecchio said. Mainframes are becoming service providers on top of existing transactions, at least at the high end of the mainframe scale, he said.
The mainframe is not the right platform for every Web application, agreed Jim Rhyne, a distinguished engineer at IBM. Many organizations have developed a significant number of Web-based applications to run on the Unix, Windows and Linux-based servers that have proliferated in their IT departments in recent years.
Rather than spelling the end of the mainframe, this diverse picture is spurring interest in IBM’s Linux mainframes and Websphere middleware, which offer a lot of SOA and multiplatform integration capability, he added.
Rally ’round the bus
“Actually what we are seeing a lot of — and hearing — is that SOA is a key piece of business modernization, not just mainframe modernization,” said Robert Rosen, president of Share, an IBM users group. Users “can make use of their older systems in this new environment because basically what you do is take older applications and you plug them into that enterprise system bus so you can share the information or the data across the different applications.”
Tarrant County officials used enterprise service bus software from Sonic Software to forge integration between multiple systems, Smith said.
Until a year ago, the county’s data center wasn’t a pretty picture. There was the IBM zSeries mainframe, spewing about 18 inches of wiring for the highly customized interfaces that connected the mainframe to the other systems. Any change or modification to that setup would have caused a disastrous cascade effect, Smith said.
“So we overlaid a nice bus architecture, a grid that ties all of the systems together,” Smith said. “It allows us to retrieve the information without having to undo the old stuff and provide new services without having to fight through 20 years of bad architecture.”
“So, on the top we are doing new [applications] and underneath we are disconnecting the spaghetti from the different machines,” he said.
Next year, county officials want to be able to swap platforms in and out without workers knowing or caring where the data they are using came from. At an application level, the bus architecture is also being used to integrate the county’s justice systems into a single view, so law enforcement officials can keep track of people from the time they enter jail to their release from custody, Smith said.
“We’re trying to be very cost-effective in delivering our information, and I can tell you mainframes have had plenty of time to become very well-managed and secure environments,” Smith said. “The shame is that they haven’t been able to deliver information in the new world very easily, so this architecture really changes that.”
Smith said Tarrant County plans to bring in a zSeries mainframe that supports 64-bit architecture next year and eventually phase out its current system when IBM no longer supports it.
Just another server
Miami-Dade County, Fla., has also used a SOA approach to bring mainframe applications into the world of Web services to give citizens and employees better access to county systems.
“I see the mainframe as another server and a place where application data can be sourced from,” said Carmen Suarez, system support manager with Miami-Dade County.
Applying SOA makes it easier for county software developers to build composite applications to provide self-service functions for constituents via the county’s Web portal, she said. It also gives the developers working on disparate projects a common framework.
The county, which serves the Miami metropolitan area’s 2.2 million people, uses IBM z/OS mainframes and has about 65 mission-critical applications that use the CA-IDMS/DB mainframe database from the software vendor CA.
The county began by deploying software from DataDirect Technologies, an operating unit of Progress Software. The company’s Shadow z/Services enables county developers to wrap existing mainframe software application logic into ready-to-use Web services and then deploy them within the county’s portal environment, which is based on Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition.
The county used Shadow z/Services to build a host of new applications such as the Hurricane Shutter Permitting application that allows contractors to go online to apply for permits, pay fees and print the permits. In addition, the software was used to provide the county’s Integrated Voice Response Answer Center with access to core mainframe functions via Web services.
The county is also piloting a Shadow z/Services Web service called Consumption, which enables the mainframe to call Web services provided by other machines and then use those services. Shadow z/Services Consumption can be applied to tasks such as e-mail address verification, terror threat level updates or mainframe-initiated faxing, according to DataDirect Technologies.
When developers build new applications and functions for the mainframe and allow it to be both a provider and consumer of Web services, then it is truly a first-class citizen in a distributed environment, said Dan Foody, chief technology officer at Sonic Software.
Driven to SOA
Others agree that the flexibility to interconnect a variety of platforms is a key rationale for adopting SOA. “That’s what drove us to this approach, because we don’t necessarily control our own destiny,” said Sandy Kline, deputy CIO at the Navy Facilities Engineering Command (Navfac). The command is required to connect to a variety of mandated systems.
Navfac manages the $11 billion procurement process for the Navy, Marine Corps and other federal clients. It also provides facilities management resources for the Defense Department and non-DOD entities. In a bid to lower procurement costs, Navfac officials embarked nine years ago on a model-driven service approach and composite application strategy to link its core systems, long before SOA became a buzzword.
Navfac has linked its mainframe-based Facilities Information System (FIS), which is hosted by the Defense Information Systems Agency, with the rest of its core business applications that run on Web-based servers. Those systems included DOD’s Standard Procurement System, for writing contracts; Single Platform Maximo, for managing facilities maintenance; and WebCM, a post-construction management application.
Navfac used technology from Logical Apps to build a framework and composite applications that linked those core systems. For example, a module called e-contracts sits between the facilities management and procurement systems. It collects and sends contract writing requirements to the Standard Procurement System, Kline said.
Several interfaces move data back and forth between the standard procurement system, the e-contracts composite model and FIS. So Navfac uses composite applications and Jacada Software, a Web-to-host integration technology that provides links between FIS and the procurement system.
“The service-oriented architecture and some of these transactional technologies allow the mainframe to continue to be a viable platform for high-end processing,” she said.
Still, some experts believe IBM needs to step up to the plate to give users more direction with SOA.
“My critical question for [IBM] is show me the architecture for doing SOA with the mainframe,” said Brand Niemann, co-chairman of the CIO Council’s SOA Community of Practice. “We want [IBM] to come up with one; it’s not that we’re skeptical” about the company’s ability to create an architecture.