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Integration specialists ride mainframe migration wave

Krissi Danielsson, Contributor

It's said mainframes are the 18-wheeler trucks of the computing world. Sometimes they're the right tool for the job, offering large carrying capacity and dependability, but sometimes it makes more fiscal sense to divide the job among a fleet of smaller, quicker vessels that cost less and require less training to operate.

While mainframe sales overall have increased over the past few years, many organizations are finding that high-availability Intel boxes are a less expensive way to meet their corporate computing needs.

"From a price/performance standpoint, the mainframe has stood still, said Tim O'Brien, senior product manager of Microsoft's platform strategy group. "The price has made it the most expensive computing platform on the planet." Indeed, cost is usually the driving factor behind any decision to migrate off the mainframe.

According to Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Research, companies without extensive mainframe installations or those utilizing the mainframe to support legacy systems are most commonly interested in migration. "If the mainframe needs are static, those are the types of customers to whom migration might be more sensible," he points out, while it is less common for an organization with larger mainframe utilization.

Regardless of the reasons, migrating applications off the mainframe is no small task. It involves a huge amount of planning, followed by the technical challenges of locating and moving data, as well as compiling

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mainframe-run applications to run on the target platform of choice. An increasing number of vendors are pitching tools to assist in this potentially overwhelming process. But who are these vendors and what can they offer you?

COBOL compilers

The Mainframe Migration Alliance (MMA) includes most of leading vendors that offer tools to facilitate mainframe migrations. Microsoft formed the vendor alliance to meet the needs of customers interested in migrating to the Windows platform.

According to MMA director Spyros Sakellariadis, there are two major groups of vendors. The first is software publishers that help compile COBOL to run on other platforms, such as Windows. The leaders in that field, Sakellariadis said, are MicroFocus and Fujitsu. He estimates one or the other is present in over 80% of mainframe migrations.

"What these partners have done has given mainframe customers the ability to use those COBOL skills to compile applications to run on Windows without having to rewrite a bunch of stuff," O'Brien said. Since COBOL applications can include hundreds of millions of lines of code, these tools prevent a lot of migration headaches.

System integrators

The other major category of migration vendors is a class of companies that assist companies in the entire process of moving from the mainframe to another platform. Vendors in this category, such as Informatica, "provide the ability to extract data from mainframe sources and transform and map it to a new schema on a different platform," said Ted Friedman, a principal analyst with the Gartner Inc. "They may also help with resolving data quality issues along the way."

In addition to Informatica, Ascential and other traditional ETL market vendors can usually provide assistance in integration, Friedman said.

Other vendors in this space include Electronic Data Systems, Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu Consulting and Agitronics, Sakellariadis said. Overall, their tools ease most of the technical headaches involved in a migration and provide tools that handle the grunt work of integrating mainframe data into the new platform without requiring a whole lot of programming.

"The idea is to make it faster to get a migration done as opposed to writing custom data conversion programs," Friedman said.

The University of Illinois was one organization that benefited from using a system integration tool. The university decided five years ago to replace multiple core business applications, and that process included a wind-down and decommissioning of its mainframe platform. In the process of working on the mainframe migration, the university looked at integration tools to facilitate the process.

"We were looking for a single tool to connect to different data sources to retrieve the data rather than doing that through programming or variety of different tools," said Bill Stauffer, assistant vice president at the university.

The university settled on Informatica's PowerCenter and PowerExchange tools, which access and move data from the mainframe to the new platform. Thanks to the tools, Stauffer said moving the data was not the most difficult part of the process. The difficulty was "more in the analysis and determination of what you need to save and what you can toss," he said.

Mark Baysore, a university project manager, also believes the decision to use an integration tool paid off. "From a technical standpoint, it's been a relatively easy process to move data with the ability to connect to different data sources using Informatica," he said.

Obviously, integration tools can greatly ease the process of mainframe migration, and it makes sense to use them after making the decision to migrate. Otherwise, the process might be like reapportioning an 18-wheeler truck's cargo into 20 smaller box vans by manually opening hundreds of crates to examine and re-sort the contents. Still, King said caution and planning are the best keys to assuring a smooth transition to a new platform.

"Companies need to make sure that they're not going to be stepping out of a hot tub and into a cold shower," he said. "They really need to sit down and figure out how what they're migrating toward, compared to what they've been used to."

Krissi Danielsson is a freelance writer and former TechTarget editor. You can reach her at kdd at danielssonarts dot com.

This was first published in March 2005

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