Data security, auditability boost role of 'postmodern mainframe' in modern two-tier architectures: CEO

Efforts to meet the data-deletion requirements of the European Union's ' right to be forgotten' policy have delivered new methods of data tracking and management that are intrinsically related to securing mainframe platforms as they transition into the cloud era, according to the head of mainframe-software specialist Compuware.

Having reinvented the 40-year-old company through a major transformation that excised its midrange systems for a two-tier architecture – combining core mainframes with cloud platforms where possible – CEO Chris O'Mally told CSO Australia that the effort had spawned thinking around how to reliably delete personal information from systems that were designed to gather and store it indefinitely.

Tight controls over the storage and flow of data had provided “a way of cataloguing where the data is about an individual, and ensuring that you've deleted all the information about that individual within the mainframe,” he explained.

“For a large insurance company or bank, all the transactional data they're going to have about an individual is on the mainframe; that's where the greatest degree of risk lies. There may be data on other systems, but on the mainframe side of things we can ensure that you've done all the proper work to get rid of the digital remnants of an individual.”

Extending open-systems concepts to the niche but reinvigorated mainframe market – which saw IBM enjoy triple-digit growth after a z Series system refresh in early 2015 that led into an easing in IDC's latest figures – has become critical for business leaders who, surveys have repeatedly found, have expectations that the platforms will persist for a decade or more.

A Compuware survey of CIOs last year found that 88 percent of respondents see the mainframe as a key business asset over the next decade; “it's unlikely that they would say this about anything else in the data centre,” O'Malley laughs.

The survey also noted, however, that 39 percent of respondents had no explicit plans for addressing shortages in mainframe developers.

And fully 70 percent of respondents were “surprised” by how expensive and difficult it is to build new platforms and applications to offer as much security as their mainframes. Improving this is a core conceit of the new Compuware, which O'Malley has directed around helping bring mainframes smoothly into the modern world whilst capitalising on their architectural benefits.

While the heavily virtualised mainframe platform lends a high degree of security against intra-system security breaches, its traditionally slow 'waterfall' development processes have worked against it in being responsive to ever-changing application and security threat environments.

“All the work on the mainframe just can't be waterfall and slow, and take months or years,” O'Malley said. “I met a customer the other day who had release cycles on the mainframe every 18 months; Amazon does [builds] a thousand times a day. So, you've got to make mainframe development speedier without sacrificing quality and security, and all the other virtues of the platform.”

Compuware's product pipeline had focused on closing this gap, with a range of tools that “get rid of all those esoteric differences” to build what O'Malley calls 'the postmodern mainframe’. “In this world, big doesn’t beat small anymore,” he explained. "it’s fast beats slow. Techniques around the release frequency in the DevOps space and continuous improvement, need to be brought to bear on mainframe intellectual property.”

Tight controls over the distribution and management of data in the mainframe environment would support that reinvention while providing a strong degree of data management.

This included preservation of business-relevant controls and detailed auditability of all transactions run through the platform. This capability is particularly important in detecting insider fraud conducted not through conventional open-systems breaches but through subtle manipulation of transactional software – using clever programming, for example, to generate fraudulent transactions or funnel sensitive transaction-related data outside of the system.

Ultimately, O'Malley said, the security controls and highly-secure virtualisation of the mainframe platform makes it an excellent back-end to complete a Web front end for application delivery – which is why as CEO he has made it a priority to push midrange servers out of Compuware to create a two-tiered operating environment.

“My vision state is this idea of two-platform IT,” he explained, noting that one of his first acts upon assuming the role was to direct the CIO to expunge the company of its distributed servers. “It's mainframe and it's the cloud,” he said, “and the thing you want to get rid of is the distributed compute.

A mainframe does really well in terms of being a transactional system or a system of record – but it's not going to be the system of engagement in any meaningful way; that will certainly be the cloud. Two-platform IT is those two working in tandem.”

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