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The cloud-based model allowed two Florida agencies time to better plan their systems modernization.
Mainframe as a service (MFaaS) has helped some Florida agencies transition off end-of-life mainframes.
The Northwest Regional Data Center—the state’s cloud broker for state and local agencies plus colleges, universities and school districts—began offering MFaaS about three years ago as part of its service catalog. NWRDC replaced its z/10 platform with a z/15 environment maintained by Ensono, a managed service provider. MFaaS provides a capacity-on-demand model for the center’s customers—government and educational agencies.
But the biggest benefit has been supporting agencies that felt rushed to move off mainframes that were coming to their end of life, said Tim Brown, executive director of NWRDC, which is based in Tallahassee.
“We had two large agencies that felt in a rush. They didn’t want to be the last ones left on the mainframe,” Brown said, adding that the MFaaS allowed them time to better plan migrating their projects. Other agencies have been able to extend the life of some of their applications.
“They’re looking at modernization in a different way now,” he said. “The overall cloud-based model, the business model of the mainframe, I think has worked out very well.”
The MFaaS offering came about as the center looked at next-generation mainframe services in response to several challenges, Brown said: the rising cost of replacing a mainframe, the end of life of the existing mainframe and workforce issues as mainframe-savvy workers retire.
The center contracted with Ensono to provide a mainframe service within its data center. “They’re providing a managed services layer for us,” Brown said. “We’re managing the state of Florida, still managing security and the applications, but Ensono is managing the infrastructure.”
The partnership also addressed the workforce gap because the center can pull from Ensono’s broad expertise, Brown said.
Additionally, because of the capacity-on-demand model, NWRDC has realized significant fixed savings and cost avoidance. The initial savings for fiscal 2020-21 was $700,000. When a software optimization project is completed in June, Brown estimates that the state will save a total of $7.4 million through 2025.
Now, the center is looking into the next generation of projects, such as increasing efficiencies around toolsets.
“What we had was a mixture of mainframe customers from across the state, and many of them were using similar but different tools that accomplish the same thing,” Brown said. “We’re looking at ways to consolidate those into one toolset to gain some additional savings. I think we’re in the final stages of that project this year.”
The center’s shift to MFaaS was not without challenges. “Changing the business model, it’s not just a technical issue, it’s a budget issue, it’s a business issue,” Brown said. “It’s a different mindset.”
Ensono runs mainframes in 10 other states, and comfort with organizational change is a common problem, said Clint Dean, the company’s vice president of state and local government. Sometimes agencies need to be convinced that “we’re not putting critical services at risk,” he said.
One factor that eased NWRDC’s transition is MFaaS’ consumption-based model that allows customers to pay based on usage rather than locking them into the cost of buying and owning equipment.
“Northwest Regional, if they were going to do it themselves, they’ve got to have the capital expenditure to have new hardware every so often,” Dean said. NWRDC would have been stuck with a large equipment investment even as mainframe usage declined as agencies modernized applications.
For entities considering switching to MFaaS, he said the keys are planning and communication. “These mainframes are critical. They’re often supporting some of the most vulnerable citizens in the state,” Dean said. It’s important to make sure “agencies are comfortable, understand what we’re doing … and supportive.”
Unifying constituent users is crucial, Brown added. “It couldn’t just be communications between Ensono and Northwest,” he said. Bringing constituents into the planning early ensures “they feel like they’re part of it instead of victims of it. You want everybody working together as a team.”
Founded in 1972, NWRDC began “in the mainframe world as a mainframe service provider but grew into other services [to be] a full-fledged cloud services provider now,” Brown said, adding that the center works with Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Oracle and Google. “We believe that every cloud partner has some strengths and weaknesses, and we need to look at the business model and make sure we’re choosing the right one for the customers,” he said. “We want to make sure that the business need is what’s driving the technology, not the other way around.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.