Photo Credit: Jyrki Salmi

Photo Credit: Jyrki Salmi

John Marzluff is an ornithologist and a professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington. In his new book Subirdia, he discusses his study of what happens to the suburban bird population as their landscape changes underneath them—for instance when a wooded area is cleared for new housing, shopping or golf courses.

One surprising finding is that bird diversity actually increases in the new environment. Another finding is that the bird population falls into three general categories: avoiders, adapters and exploiters.

Avoiders require a wild habitat and don’t fare well. Over time they move on and become extinct in the new landscape. Adapters adjust to the changing landscape and continue along at roughly the same numbers they had in the old landscape. Exploiters are birds that actually thrive in the new environment and its close contact with humans. Anyone who lives in an urban or suburban area can probably quickly identify the classic exploiters: crows!

Does this same categorization apply in different areas? Let’s take a look at another rapidly changing landscape: technology. And if you specifically look at IBM mainframes (rather than applications built on the mainframe) you can see evidence of all three categories.  As new technology surged forward IBM was mostly content to operate as an avoider, almost denying the existence of such trends as Linux, mobile, cloud and big data.  In many ways IBM let others define the playing field. Then they snapped out of their doldrums and began to behave much more like adapters. For instance enabling easy mainframe access to Linux (and at a potentially discounted rate). While this is an appealing storyline (especially as a greener, more manageable alternative to servers) there is little evidence that this has done more than allow IBM mainframe to tread water. Recently IBM has been acting more and more like an exploiter—particularly intent on assuming the lead in big data analytics. How will this multiple personality approach play out into the future? Only time will tell.

How about sites that rely on the mainframe? Which approach works best for them? One quick lesson learned is not to follow IBM’s path. Let’s not sugar coat what happens to avoiders: extinction, either complete or within the changed landscape. Does that sound appealing for any business? A middle ground might be the tack of the adapter: provide the minimum care and feeding of your mainframe systems, continue as business as usual and concentrate your efforts and finances on your newer applications. The catch here is that sites that own mainframes use them as the predominate system of record.  Eventually all applications, old, new, web-based, mobile—they all lead to the mainframe. And every application is only as strong as its weakest link.  Can you really afford to keep the mainframe locked up in the attic? Is status quo adequate?

The third approach is to become an exploiter: recognize that the mainframe isn’t antiquated hardware but instead represents your organization’s specific Intellectual Property—refined over and over again over years and years and specifically tailored to best fit your customers and their needs. In many ways it is the essence of your company’s customer-facing identity. Make the investment necessary to keep your mainframe heathy, vibrant and relevant. Use the wide array of available connectivity choices to develop new services to tap into this reservoir of business differentiators. Leverage the mainframe for what it does best (reliability, availability, security) and continue to differentiate your company with creative strategies to exploit the mainframe.

Marzluff ends his book with a call to arms.  He asks that we celebrate the adaptability of birds and suggests simple steps to enhance this adaptability.  I’d suggest we take the same approach to the mainframe. Celebrate its adaptability and take steps to continue to exploit what it provides today and what it will provide into the future.