Mainframes and mobile: What powers your mobile banking?

The little known secret behind the powerful convenience of online and mobile banking.

Mobile banking and mainframes
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As someone who lives and breathes mainframes, I often forget that people who aren't part of this world don't always believe some of the truths that I believe to be self-evident. One  common way that I raise eyebrows is when I tell my fellow technologists that mainframes are perfect for supporting mobile applications. In fact, it is almost guaranteed to invoke skepticism. So let me just say it again: mainframes and mobile are a perfect combination.

At first glance, it's easy to see why this might be somewhat incongruous. Mainframes have been around for more than half a century, and for most of their history the idea of small, portable devices was the stuff of science fiction. When laptops, smartphones and tablets (and, more recently, intelligent wearables) came on the scene they were truly revolutionary because they fulfilled the long-standing promise of truly portable computing. So what role could "Big Iron" possibly play in a world of increasingly smaller devices?

The answer turns out to be "a pretty large one." That's because mobile devices are being asked to do far more than their underlying systems were designed to support. A great example of this is in the banking industry. Back when financial institutions first automated their systems using mainframes, the systems were designed to be used by bank staff. Tellers used terminals to access customer accounts, and back-office staff managed the massive amount of data that banks generate every day. These systems were never intended to be directly accessed by the account holders.

Then ATMs came along, and for the first time account holders could access information (as well as cash) without having to interact with bank staff. A decade later, online banking made it possible for people to handle complex transactions with no human intervention at all.

So what does all this have to do with mainframes? Simply put, all of the underlying systems that support mobile banking are powered by mainframes, but they are being asked to do far more than they were originally designed to do. This requires more than simply skinning an old app – it involves building entirely new functionality on top of an existing infrastructure with zero disruptions or system failures. And if this sounds like a pipe dream, consider that just about every bank in the world has successfully done this! They didn't replace their mainframes…they created completely new functionality to support mobile deployments.

Let's look at the specific example of a check clearing. Twenty years ago, people wrote checks and knew that it would take a few days for them to clear. If an individual wanted to know if a check had cleared, he or she had to contact the bank (or go into the branch) where a teller would check on the status. Needless to say, this did not happen all that frequently. Today, with mobile banking, it's common for people to check their accounts dozens of times a day from their smartphones.

Obviously, the previous generation of banking software was not designed to handle this kind of load, or to support any sort of remote access. Financial institutions had to reinvent their systems from the ground up to accommodate the ways that customers access their data in the real world while maintaining the integrity of their data. As it turns out, the mainframes that power most banks were able to handle this without breaking a sweat.

Of course, given the sheer number of banks around the world, a lot of different approaches were taken to enable mobility. But the one thing that all of these modernization projects had in common was that the underlying technology remained on the mainframe. So the next time I hear someone express skepticism about the ability to truly integrate mobile and mainframes, I'm just going to invite them to pull out their phones and check their bank balances.

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