May 30, 2014

The summer movie season is nearly upon us, and included in the many potential blockbusters is a remake of that perennially angry but always loveable creature from the deep, Godzilla. Hearing about that remake got me thinking about another classic Godzilla movie, so here's a quiz. What do the IBM System/360 mainframe and the classic Japanese science-fiction film Mothra vs. Godzilla have in common?

The answer: they both celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2014! The production of the IBM System/360 was announced by IBM on April 7, 1964, and the film made its debut in Japan on April 27, 1964 before opening in America later that summer.

So what else do these two rather disparate things have in common? More than you might think. First, both are viewed as classics of their respective genres, the introduction of which would lead to a series of follow-on models and movies. Second, both are viewed as representing a moment in time that has passed, and while respected for what they did in that moment, their relevance has waned. And third, both have something to teach us about the pace of technology advancement, both in computing and in science-fiction filmmaking, which come to think of it, might be the same thing now.

Frank Petersmark
Frank Petersmark, X by 2

Most importantly though, the movie serves as a fitting metaphor for the most recent discussions about the mainframe's demise as a result of the Cloud and demise of the service mentality that goes along with the mainframe. You could say Mothra is like the cloud and Godzilla is like the mainframe.

[Previously from Petersmark: The Surprising New IT Bottleneck]

So let's start with the obvious. Both Mothra (a giant bug) and Godzilla (a giant reptile) want to wreak havoc. At a macro level, both mainframe and cloud computing seek to accomplish the same thing – provide computing resources (CPU, memory, storage, software) that can be shared by many users for the purposes of accomplishing computing tasks. Of course at a more micro level they happen to do this in very different ways, but all things being equal, the results can be very much the same.

In today's technology landscape, the Cloud has emerged as a viable threat (and alternative) to the mainframe and as the next sure sign that the mainframe's days are numbered. In the 1964 movie, Mothra emerges as a viable threat to Godzilla (and Tokyo) and a sure sign that Godzilla was on the way out as the top atomically charged prehistoric critter. In both cases, news of their respective demises proved premature.

However, fun metaphors aside, there's another more fundamental lesson here, and that is that in insurance IT it's not where you do it, it's what you do. Whether it's the Cloud, the mainframe, a mobile app, or even a customized portal, let's stop focusing on the platform, and start focusing more on the customer and the value delivered.

The IBM System/360 was a means to an end, and every other computing advancement since then was and is in the same category. The technology is not the end game; it's what savvy IT and business people figure out to do with the technology that makes the difference. That might seem simplistic, but it's a message that gets lost at times in technology hype cycles, so a reminder every now and again about what's really important seems appropriate.

The context for new technology should always be its potential benefit to the organization's strategic and operational goals. If there isn't that potential benefit, that should be a red flag that the new technology might be falling into the technology-for-technology's-sake danger zone.

Last I looked, nine out of the top 10 largest insurers still run their core systems on mainframes, and mainframes still handle nearly all of the transactions in 96 of the world's 100 largest banks. I'd also be willing to bet that nearly all of these same companies have some sort of Cloud presence, proving that the emergence of one technology does not necessarily mean the demise of another.

We like to think of technology as a zero-sum game, but when put into the context of contributing to the top and bottom lines of organizations, that's just not the case. If such were the case, then automobiles would have eliminated trains, and planes would have eliminated automobiles. All those technologies are still with us, and likely will be for many years to come.

In fact, the best-of-all-possible-technology worlds for companies that need rock-solid reliability and unlimited scalability might be cloud computing on mainframes. That's an interesting way to couple a proven technology with an emerging connectivity model that serves today's mobile workforces and consumers.

And that's the point. The most successful CIOs and IT leaders will find interesting ways to combine, leverage, and otherwise take advantage of the best of all technology worlds – old and new – to add value to their organizations.

I wonder what combining Mothra and Godzilla would have looked like.

About the author: Frank Petersmark is the CIO Advocate at X by 2, a technology consulting company in Farmington Hills, Mich., specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects for the insurance industry. As CIO Advocate, he travels the country meeting CIOs and other senior IT and business executives at insurers, learning about their goals and frustrations, sharing lessons learned, and offering strategic counsel. Formerly Chief Information Officer and Vice President of information technology at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Company, Frank has more 30 years' experience as an information technology professional and executive.