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Blog > May 2020 > From Pocket-protected Lab Coats to the Line of Business – Democratizing the Mainframe User Experienc

From Pocket-protected Lab Coats to the Line of Business – Democratizing the Mainframe User Experience

Mainframes – A Blessing and a Curse

When most people in the enterprise think of the mainframe, thoughts may be tinged with a variety of impressions – powerful, legacy, necessary evil, reliable, big line item in the budget, highly available and –almost universally – intimidating. In the way the mainframe was first developed and driven by the engineers that have designed through its many generations since the 1960s, it is a system that is extravagantly, excruciatingly granular in its controls. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it gives the proficient user incredible levels of control. It is a curse because if it gets one thing wrong and, for example, the bank misses its batch settlement window for the night, there is hell to pay.  Pity the poor, unfortunate soul who uses a wrong data type and hits a hard SOC7 abend.

This Dinosaur Knows how to Dance

Despite this, and despite all the forecasts of the demise of the dinosaur mainframe, the dinosaur continues to dance. The reliability, availability and serviceability of the mainframe (and all the infrastructure and organization IBM places behind it) makes it one of the most critical, useful and used technology platforms in many enterprises. Moreover, the dinosaur has learned new moves and shakes its tail to the same steps as it evolutionary descendants. Cha-cha connecting your Unix servers over TCP/IP using TLS3? The mainframe cha-chas in the same way with the same protocol, available natively from the OS. Need a JVM to run your application mambo? z/OS has a virtual machine ready to fall instep. Want to containerize a program? The mainframe is ready for Docker foxtrot.

The “Evil Green Screen” Often Keeps the Mainframe out of Today’s Digital Dance

Yet, for all that, the impression is that the mainframe is hard…and in all honesty, that’s true, particularly when it came to user experience. Its native user interface was developed long before graphical user interface design was the standard – even before anything short of expensive hardwired point-to-point connections were standard. Those 3270 green screen panels remain serviceable for the mainframe expert while they discourage new users whose experience started after the introduction of the Internet, point-and-click graphical user interfaces, smartphones and tablets. Due to the critical nature of the applications run on the mainframe, integrations with client-server were quickly developed through a variety of methods – screen scrapping, low level connectors and drivers that attempt to make mainframe VTAM or IMS data available to SQL calls – all still requiring significant IT expertise. All this even before getting to the point of making an inviting user experience that accomplishes what the line of business needs to drive its value stream efficiently.

Time to Pack, Wrap and Modernize this Beast for Today’s Dance

The very good news is that now, two potent extensions for the mainframe are making it easier to invite mainframe applications to today’s digital transformation dance. First, several software vendors now provide enterprises with the technology they need to quickly and easily expose the critical capabilities of their traditional mainframe COBOL, Assembler and PL/1 programs via application processing interfaces (APIs) with much less effort and much more utility than before. Second, and perhaps more important, a vital new class of low code / no code user experience platforms exist, including our own ASG-Zenith, that neatly and easily integrate with these APIs, designed to be used by business analysts. The importance of this last part cannot be over-estimated – giving the non-IT user, one who’s in tune with the value streams that drive enterprise revenue, knowledgeable with the critical processes and market context, the capability to quickly, without coding, automate processes and design user interfaces, can shave days, weeks, even months off the time to market for new internal and external customer facing applications. Using skills no more sophisticated than those required to create presentation animations, spreadsheet pivot tables or departmental wikis, business analysts can use these tools to create revenue-generating, cost-saving new applications and deliver them to users in a fraction of the time required by traditional IT development methods.
This is an accelerating, portentous trend that enterprises ignore only at peril – watch the ASG blog for more on the topic soon!