Why major banks and financial institutions are growing their use of mainframes

Bank Vault

There are many arguments that the mainframe is on its way out, and they all have one thing in common: they are all wrong. And nowhere is this truer than in the financial services industry, which is dominated by mainframes.

Isn't it curious that all major banks and financial institutions have mainframe computers at the center of their technology strategies? All of them. That's because mainframes are able to provide functionality and reliability that no other platform can match. These include:

  • Transaction power. Banks deal with a lot of data, and very few systems of record can match mainframes when it comes to transaction throughput. Simply put, big iron can handle the demands that major financial institutions throw at it.
  • Analytical speed. Transaction power is important, but it's only part of the equation. Mainframes let companies keep their data where it is (versus copying it several times into some warehouse), which dramatically reduces the amount of time it takes to access and analyze time-critical data.
  • No downtime. Banks can't afford to have system outages, and no platform is more reliable than the mainframe. I recently learned about a bank in Japan that has been using a mainframe since the 1970's without a single second of downtime. Its architecture allows for full software and hardware upgrades without an outage. For financial institutions, that's huge.
  • Supports mobile and cloud. Mainframes may be 51 years old, but they are perfectly positioned to incorporate new technologies. Two of the most important for the financial industry are mobile and cloud because users require instant access to data no matter where they are. It's no longer a luxury. Mix in BYOD and it's pretty obvious that mainframes are perfect for the job.
  • Integration. All of us have been through software integrations where two unrelated pieces of technology are supposed to work together seamlessly. Most of the time there are glitches because not everything lines up perfectly. Within a mainframe system, however, all of these can be resolved without requiring a system shutdown and restart.

IBM's Information Management System (IMS) was developed for the Apollo space program and has been a reliable component of mainframe data management ever since. The biggest recent growth for IMS has been in China, particularly for its largest banks. Many people outside of Asia might not know the names of these institutions, but they dwarf the largest banks based in the United States. And they are all powered by mainframes. Of course, they all have other platforms as well, but all of those other systems surround the mainframe as the system of record. On this side of the Pacific, large financial institutions are also growing their mainframe capabilities (Disclosure:  My employer is a development partner with IBM.)

When the world's largest banks decide to entrust their valuable data – not to mention their security and their reputations – to a particular platform, it's worth looking at why. The bottom line is that nothing has ever been able to equal mainframes when it comes to supporting global financial institutions. So if you haven't looked at the mainframe in a while, maybe it's time to take a second look.

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