While the \u201cdeath of the mainframe\u201d may be a ways off if ever, companies are currently looking for exit strategies from big iron, with logistics multinational FedEx making headlines of late, announcing it will retire all its mainframes by 2024 in a bid to save $400 million annually.\n\nAs part of its goal to achieve carbon-neutral operations globally by 2040, FedEx is adopting a zero data center\/zero mainframe environment, running half its compute in colocation facilities and half in the cloud \u2014 a move that will also help the global logistics provider be more flexible, secure, and cost-effective, says Ken Spangler, executive vice president of global information technology at FedEx.\n\n\u201cMainframes were not in our long-term plan,\u201d he says. \u201cOver a 10-year period, we have been evolving slowly away from the mainframe base; it\u2019s basically the retire, replace, and re-engineer strategy.\u201d\n\nSo far, 90% of FedEx\u2019s big-iron applications have been moved off the company\u2019s mainframes, but 10% are \u201csticky,\u201d because of integration issues due to layers of interdependencies, Spangler says, adding that FedEx has \u201csome unique operating companies\u201d in its portfolio with their own technologies that have a lot of dependencies.\n\nThe undertaking is as massive as it sounds, as migrating compute-intensive systems on mainframes out of data centers and into the cloud is not for the faint of heart.\n\nStill, companies such as IBM are taking steps to help companies\u2019 mainframe applications have an afterlife in the cloud, and many enterprises are embarking on journeys to modernize their existing mainframe strategies for the digital era, including investing further in the latest big iron.\n\nBut for companies like FedEx looking to divest from their mainframe estates in favor of the cloud, a methodical approach is essential. Motivations for making the move vary, says Mike Chuba, managing vice president at Gartner. In some cases it\u2019s a \u201cgraying of the skillset\u201d and in others, aging equipment and cost, he says.\u201cThe analogy I use is, if you\u2019re a homeowner and haven\u2019t done basic maintenance for 10 to 15 years and things are falling apart, you\u2019ve got a very difficult decision: whether to make that substantial investment to catch up \u2026 or look to move someplace else,\u2019\u2019 Chuba says.\n\nFor smaller mainframe shops that have \u201cfallen far behind, and the mainframe hasn\u2019t been a strategic asset and competitive differentiator,\u201d the choice may be less cut and dry, he says. \u201cThey may be running on hardware that is 10 years old with unsupported software, so attempting to modernize may be too large.\u201d\n\nBut for entities that can potentially realize a future without having to maintain big iron in-house, here are vital insights from IT leaders who have begun the journey.\n\nBeware the big data lag\n\nFor cable manufacturer Southwire, the impetus to move off mainframes was aging equipment. It became a question of \u201cdid we want to be in the data center business or are there other people who do processing better,\u2019\u2019 says Dan Stuart, senior vice president of IT at Southwire, which makes wire and cable for transmitting and distributing electricity.\n\nAnother factor was \u201ccost avoidance,\u201d Stuart says, as the equipment refresh cycle and software contract renewals were approaching. Instead, the company opted to move its core SAP environment and Tier 1 systems, including the company\u2019s manufacturing resource system, to Google Cloud Platform (GCP).\n\nThe migration occurred mid-pandemic in July 2020 and was undertaken by a combination of internal staff, Google services, and a third-party provider, Stuart says, adding that Southwire\u2019s core SAP system still runs on an IBM DB2 database in GCP, whereas its other Tier 1 applications run on Google Cloud VMware.\n\nThe migration took about eight to nine months, and Stuart is happy with the results. \u201cWe haven\u2019t experienced many problems at all\u201d running SAP in the cloud, he says. \u201cI would say fewer than on-premise.\u201d\n\nBut not having a \u201cwell laid-out project plan\u201d around data is something that Stuart says did result in issues. \u201cIf I were to do this again, I\u2019d look at the size of our databases and clean them up before I cut over and take a lot of historical data and archive it,\u201d he says. \u201cThe real \u2018gotcha\u2019 for us was we needed about two full days of downtime to do this and for a company that runs 24\/7, that\u2019s about all the time we have.\u201d\n\nUp next is moving a couple of other Tier 1 manufacturing systems that Stuart says are ready for the cloud now that IT has implemented SD-WAN.\n\n\u201cWe knew we had to increase our bandwidth to reduce any type of challenges with performance,\u2019\u2019 he explains. \u201cWe just started rolling out SD-WAN with redundant data lines with network providers to reduce the amount of downtime and increase the amount of bandwidth coming through.\u201d\n\nBased on his experience, Stuart advises IT leaders to clean and purge data before moving mainframe applications to the cloud. \u201cYou don\u2019t want to carry [excess data] over because you don\u2019t want to pay for that. So right-sizing that environment would be highly recommended. After that, you know exactly the data you want to bring over,\u201d he says.\n\nBy moving to the cloud, Southwire has been able to streamline its disaster recovery process as well. And because the company is \u201cvery big on ESG and sustainability,\u201d getting out from under having to run and maintain mainframes gives the company a reduction in its carbon footprint, Stuart says.\n\nBe strategic \u2014 and get architecture right\n\nBy contrast, FedEx\u2019s approach to weaning off on-premises mainframes is multivariant. For example, as part of its \u201cretire, replace, and re-engineer strategy,\u201d FedEx\u2019s freight company environment \u2014 one of those 10% \u201csticky\u201d mainframe applications \u2014 will be retired because \u201cit wasn\u2019t worth completely re-engineering and investing a lot of money,\u2019\u2019 Spangler says.\n\n\u201cWe want to have efficient enterprise solutions, so in that case, we\u2019re re-platforming off the mainframe because it will go away in two years and we will have [new] enterprise solutions,\u2019\u2019 he says. Spangler added that \u201cwe\u2019re being very cautious about not just re-platforming things generically.\u201d\n\nOverall, FedEx\u2019s mainframe divestment work is being done by a combination of internal and external teams. The \u201cheavy part\u201d of its mainframe retirement plan got under way in 2021. The goal is to be done by 2023.\n\nStill, Spangler advises IT leaders to \u201ctake an economic view\u201d of what to migrate given that there are still \u201ctremendous technology capabilities\u201d that exist on the mainframe. \u201cIt can\u2019t be a theoretically thing,\u2019\u2019 he says. \u201cWe just know for our environment, because we\u2019re more than a 40-year-old company \u2026 we have old technologies we were replacing anyway, and when we looked at our enterprise strategy, it just made sense.\u201d\n\nSpangler says IT leaders should also keep the principles of engineering and architecture in mind. \u201cA lot of people are so focused on getting rid of their mainframes they end up with mess,\u201d he says, adding that strong engineering and architecting upfront will help make sure you end up with something that is modern, world-class, expandable, secure, and modifiable.\n\nLastly, Spangler recommends that IT leaders \u201ccontinuously update your plan because it\u2019s a battle. It\u2019s hard. Brutally hard. We literally zero-base our business case on this every quarter and build from the bottom up.\u2019\u2019\n\nDoing so requires FedEx to look at all the costs and saving elements and start with a clean sheet that considers whether the assumptions pan out against the reality. This ensures that if something has changed, officials are aware of it, he says.\n\n\u201cEvery week, every quarter, and every year we know more,\u2019\u2019 he says. \u201cRight now we\u2019re very stable. We\u2019re super confident with a high line of sight and we are executing very strongly.\u201d\n\nDo no harm to critical applications\n\nWhen deciding whether it\u2019s time to move away from hosting your own big iron, there are a number of variables to consider. Besides the cost of modernizing your mainframe operations and applications, and taking into consideration the internal skills necessary to keep a mainframe and its applications chugging, organizations need to think about the value of availability, security, resiliency, and transactional integrity \u2014 which are often hard to quantify, Gartner\u2019s Chuba says. \u201cPeople have been trying to move off the mainframe for the last 10 to 15 years, and plenty of CIOs are lying alongside the road. \u2026 They came in with a charter to move off the mainframe and have failed,\u2019\u2019 he says. \u201cPart of that is that vendors have overpromised, but the truth is it\u2019s not easy. The low-hanging fruit has moved off [the mainframe] because there are places those apps can be moved more efficiently.\u201d But if a mission-critical application is migrated and then goes down, a company could find itself out of business, Chuba says.\n\nCloud providers, and especially the hyperscalers, have put a lot resources and investments into making it somewhat easier for companies to migrate applications off their mainframes in the past 10 years, he says \u2014 capabilities that will keep getting better.\n\nThat said, for most organizations, and large mainframe shops in particular, \u201cthe mantra is, \u2018Do no harm to those business-critical applications,\u2019\u2019\u2019 Chuba says. \u201cThey need a solid business case and assurances the transition will be seamless and their apps will run with the same level of performance, resiliency, transactional integrity, and security in the cloud as what they\u2019ve had in mainframes.\u201d\n\nAs CIOs contemplate what to do about their mainframes, Chuba says it boils down to a few essential factors: \u201cIf you\u2019ve got a skills issue, first and foremost, you have to do something \u2014 whether move to the cloud or an MSP,\u2019\u2019 Chuba says. \u201cIf you don\u2019t have the [mainframe] skills you don\u2019t have many options. You can\u2019t just shut the door and turn off the lights and hope and pray things will run.\u201d\n\nAs for those weighing moving their mainframe applications to the cloud versus modernizing them, \u201cthe discussion is the degree of risk you\u2019re willing to take,\u201d he says, pointing out that if a mainframe migration project stretches out over three to six to nine to 12 years, IT leaders are incurring lot of costs along the way.\n\n\u201cFedEx is kind of sitting at the poker table and saying, \u2018We\u2019re all in.\u2019 If they can do that and pull it off in a timely manner, I have no doubt \u2026. they\u2019ll be able to claim victory,\u2019\u2019 Chuba says. \u201cBut for customers who drag their feet or lose the momentum on these projects [after] starting with low-hanging fruit and then the project gets bogged down and they chase the next shiny object \u2026 costs could turn out to be pretty significant.\u201d\n\nFedEx\u2019s Spangler agrees that regardless of the environment you\u2019re retiring, IT \u2014 and the company \u2014 has to remain committed. \u201cYou have to lead it [and] you have to drive it hard, because these kinds of technologies are very integrated. And you have to stay focus. That\u2019s the hard part,\u201d he says.