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Mobilizing Your Mainframe: How to Make Mainframes Play Nicely with Mobile Apps

On the surface, mobile apps and mainframes may seem to inhabit totally opposite ends of the computing universe. Mainframes trace their origins to the earliest computers. In contrast, mobile devices represent a much newer, flashier type of infrastructure.

Yet the reality is that mobile needs mainframes. You can’t make the most out of mobile infrastructure and apps unless you integrate them effectively with your mainframe systems.

Below, I explain why integrating mobile and mainframe is so important, what makes it challenging, and how to overcome those hurdles.

Mobile and mainframe: Match made in heaven

Again, when you think of mobile devices, mainframe computers may be the last thing that comes to mind. Most mobile apps today are hosted on commodity servers or in public clouds designed to cater to mobile developers, such as AWS Mobile Services and Google Cloud Mobile Solutions.


Yet that approach to mobile app hosting is the way of the past, not the future. While the existing paradigm for building mobile infrastructure is not likely to go away anytime soon, mainframes are becoming a larger part of it.

That trend only makes sense. Mainframes host vast quantities of some of the most important data for creating mobile apps. For example, banking transactions, airline reservations, and payroll information – all of which you are likely to find hosted on a mainframe – are obvious foundations for building mobile apps that will be highly valuable to users.

Mobile-on-mainframe challenges

If that’s the case, why haven’t mobile apps been integrated more tightly with mainframe systems since the dawn of the mobile age?

The main reason is that integrating mobile devices and apps with mainframe systems is, well, hard. You have to deal with three big challenges:

  • Mobile devices are intermittently connected. You can’t count on network connections to be constantly available in the way you can with traditional Internet-connected infrastructure.
  • Mobile devices have minimal processing power. Doing the “thinking” on the server side is especially important when you are dealing with mobile apps, since the devices themselves tend to have relatively little in the way of memory and compute resources.
  • Mobile devices raise special security challenges. In most cases, mobile devices can’t be protected behind firewalls or locked down by system administrators. Allowing them to connect to your infrastructure is therefore especially risky in certain ways.

These challenges help explain why, to date, commodity servers and the public cloud have remained the hosting environments of choice for most mobile apps.

Making mainframe mobile-friendly

But that’s changing. As noted above, there are good reasons to want to integrate mobile apps with your mainframes, in order to make mainframe data easily accessible to mobile users.


How do you do that? There are two basic approaches. The first is heralded by IBM’s MobileFirst initiative, which the company announced in 2013. MobileFirst is designed to simplify the process of developing mobile apps that integrate with mainframe systems. It allows mobile developers to build mobile apps directly on mainframe systems using HTML or native programming languages.

That approach has some drawbacks, however. For one, you’re limited to the development frameworks that MobileFirst supports. For another, you are allowing mobile apps to connect directly to your mainframes. While MobileFirst is designed for tight security, a security-obsessed admin might prefer to place a barrier between the mainframes and the mobile apps that leverage their data.

Another approach to integrating mobile apps with mainframes is to rely on data offloading. This way, mobile apps can take advantage of mainframe systems, but without exposing mainframes to so many security risks or constraining development frameworks to those available on the mainframes themselves.

Under this model, solutions like Syncsort’s mainframe data access and integration software allows mobile developers to stream mainframe data into traditional environments that host mobile apps. That way, you can write your mobile app in whichever language you want and run it on commodity hardware, while still accessing all of your mainframe data quickly.

ZPSaver Suite is also valuable in supporting integration of mainframes with mobile apps. In the mobile world, compute operations need to happen very quickly. And as noted above, you can’t count on low-power mobile devices themselves to do the number crunching. By enabling ultra-fast mainframe performance, ZPSaver Suite allows mobile apps to gain access to the mainframe data they need without waiting.

These represent only a couple of the mainframe data access and integration and performance enhancement tools that mobile developers can use to build better apps.

You can learn about Syncsort’s new mainframe performance optimization tools for IBM DB2 (acquired from Cogito) on their webpage: “Syncsort EZ-DB2 Goes Beyond Traditional DB2 Tuning Tools”

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