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The Internet of Things Moves Forward With the Mainframe

Mainframe shops have long handled large networks of connected devices. Think ATM networks, POS networks or networks of utility meters. Mainframers have done all that before.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is different, insists Frank DeGilio, chief architect for cloud, IBM Software and Technology Group, the unit that handles the System z platform. “The ATM and POS networks were much more controlled and well understood,” he says. With today’s IoT “you are adding a very chaotic component. The end points are not known,” he observes.

If you don’t know what the connecting device is and the capabilities it brings or how many you are dealing with at any given moment or where they are coming from, you might feel like you’re living the prologue of Star Trek: to boldly go where no man has gone before.

In fact, you could be looking at “millions of devices working in ways not always clear,” DeGilio says. Millions? Many analysts are talking about billions of devices. Strategy Analytics estimates 33 billion connected devices in the next six years, up from 12 billion predicted at the end of 2014, with many of them clamoring to connect to a mainframe.

The IoT will connect to just about anything: wearables, smart home devices, smart TVs, smartphones, tablets, Internet media devices, sensors of all sorts, smart cars and even PCs. In short, anything capable of IP communications and smart enough to send or receive a message will be connected.

Tame the Chaos

To DeGilio, the role of the mainframe is to tame this chaos: “The value of the System z is to take a much less controlled environment and bring sense to it.” For starters, that means bringing a secure environment, at which the System z platform already excels. After that, you have to take a “chaotic spiky stream and deal with it,” he adds. In addition, you have to weave in all the business functionality associated with the mainframe and create business sense from the activity.

Through the IoT, say, you detect a sensor going off. Something isn’t working as expected. Now the mainframe identifies and sorts through the implications, applies transactional knowledge and determines what needs to happen. Simple, right? Think of it as a secure, well-managed mainframe transactional environment but on extreme steroids.

The mainframe can play a big role in IoT, but it won’t do it alone. System z has the processing horsepower and scalability to handle big chunks of IoT workload, however the IoT will rapidly evolve into a services game. Not a problem for the mainframe since the advent of service oriented architecture (SOA) demonstrated it can play the services game, too.

Now it will be asked to deliver services to IoT devices with the goal of not just processing transactions but becoming a revenue generator in its own right. For IoT, the mainframe will need to evolve beyond SOA to fully participate in the API economy where devices leverage APIs to fulfill service requests and request services. The IoT will change how the mainframe interacts with a much larger world.

IBM’s Role

IBM is staking out its role in the IoT. Mid-October, it announced a set of digital tools that change the IoT landscape by enabling any company to build an IoT application in just a few minutes. The new toolset, a cloud service called the IBM Internet of Things Foundation, came out of IBM’s experience working with clients of its Smarter Planet initiative. The IoT Foundation makes it possible for a developer to quickly extend an Internet-connected device like a sensor or controller into the cloud, build an application alongside the device to collect the data, and send real-time insights back to the business.

The IoT Foundation service is part of IBM’s Bluemix, an open, do-it-yourself cloud-based application platform that enables easy access to and from IoT device data coming from Internet-connected sensors, controllers and devices. As part of the IoT Foundation announcement, IBM began identifying IoT use cases, many of which will have a mainframe at the core.

For example, equipment manufacturers can use IoT to provide remote service and monitoring to residential and commercial customers. Oil and gas companies can remotely monitor and provide predictive maintenance to critical equipment. Logistics companies can track and monitor the condition of goods in transit. These are natural tasks for mainframe shops.

How about insurance companies providing pay-as-you-go insurance via the IoT? Or an enhanced version of OnStar for any automobile manufacturer by enabling it to provide new connected services for smart vehicles via IoT. With banks joining the IoT, transactions can be initiated, approved, paid for and closed on the fly.

The Future Is Now

Here is the future: DeGilio reported visiting a healthcare organization looking to break its monolithic apps into services to be recombined even by niche competitors, who become value-added resellers of the healthcare player. This is the API economy, and it is enabling the mainframe data center to become a revenue generator at the heart of IoT.

Alan Radding is freelance writer specializing in business and technology. He can be reached through his Web site,

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