Mainframes still have amazing capabilities for Retail companies
You may think that mainframes are obsolete, but they still perform the majority of batch processing for many enterprises. Mainframes are also capable of automating other tasks through the use of connectors that access and update multiple information sources, eliminating the need for users to deal with the details of storing, accessing, and moving data. For example, SMA Technologies has an IBM i connector that no other automation platform has. The advantages of using mainframes to automate tasks include transaction processing, self-service, and lights out operation.
Evolution of automation platforms
The earliest automation platforms performed batch processing, which consists of running multiple jobs in sequence without interaction from the end user. They used punch cards to provide instructions, which operators would feed into the mainframe. System administrators would schedule batch jobs to run at a specific time each day, usually at night, when demands on the system were low.
Batch processing dispensed with punch cards during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it still uses the basic concept of executing a series of jobs in order. Many typical business processes lend themselves to batch processing, making it a critical part of IT operations for most large organizations. Online systems can also function without user intervention, but they aren't typically optimized for performing repetitive tasks at high volume.
Retail IT infrastructure demands an automation platform that can handle End of Day processing as well as opening processing. They also need to generate reports, print documents, and perform other non-interactive tasks that must meet specific deadlines. Modern batch processing uses workload automation and event-driven scheduling to complete its functions, which requires job scheduling software. This software can start a process when the necessary resources are available, rather than waiting for a specific time.
Margins are razor thin and moving quickly without error is a critical need for retailers. Combining the power of mainframe automation with a modern automation orchestration platform reduces the lag and financially prohibitive mistakes of manual processes.
Automation speeds up transaction processing
Mainframes are amazing at high volume transaction processing. These applications are more likely to be mission-critical requirements that organizations need to continue operating. They must also support a variable number of concurrent users and complete transactions in a short period, fractions of a second in some cases.
A transaction processing system maintains the integrity and consistency of information, typically storing it in a database or some other file system. It does this by ensuring that all interdependent operations either complete or cancel successfully. Consider, for this example, a banking transaction that moves $100 from a customer's savings account to their checking account. This transaction includes two separate operations; debiting $100 from the checking account and crediting $100 to the savings account. The books won't balance if only one of these operations succeeds, so transaction processing must ensure that both operations succeed or both fail.
The benefits of transaction processing as compared to batch processing include the ability to maintain a high utilization rate for mainframes without requiring constant human interaction. This benefit helps amortize the mainframe's initial cost and justify its operational cost. Transaction processing also allows many users to share computer resources.
For retail companies, having an automation platform that can natively connect with your mainframe makes it easier to dramatically speed up transaction processing. IT operators can dispense with using the antiquated job schedulers such as AJS, and significantly shrink their EoD processing window, providing more timely data and removing almost all need for manual interventions.
The concept of user self-service isn't new in business, but IT is one area that has been slow to embrace it widely. One reason is that it requires end users to have greater access over the system so they can perform functions historically reserved for the IT department. Modern mainframes provide a high degree of control over user access, meaning that administrators can provide users with no more access than they need to do their jobs. Some businesses are also using mainframes to extend self-service from internal to external operations, providing customers with additional options. Self-service functions may, therefore, be fully automated without direct intervention by IT personnel, since managers can approve these tasks through remote communications such as email, phone calls, and SMS.
The benefits of self-service automation include the time savings due to reduced management and faster execution of requests. End users can execute complicated workflows, such as multi-app reports, without having specialized IT knowledge. HR generalists can execute most of their onboarding and offboarding tasks via self service automation, for example. Self-service also provides IT administrators with greater traceability and transparency over the use of processes and resources.
Lights out operations (LOO) means that a mainframe fixes its errors without direct human intervention. This capability allows processes to run overnight without requiring an employee to babysit the system, waiting for something to break. This is accomplished by event-triggered workflows. When a job fails, for example, the workflow reruns the job and executes the next non-dependent step. If a critical job fails repeatedly, the system alerts an operator who can log in via web interface to resolve the issue. Typically, it’s not the main frame that is failing, it’s the application responsible for feeding data that is failing to respond. Operators can set up workflows to restart those dependent systems as well, so that the job schedule can keep on running without any intervention needed.
Time sensitive operations are ubiquitous in the retail space. If end of day processing fails overnight, then store opening processes can’t be rolled out. Lights Out Operations help IT leaders sleep better, because they know their system is resilient and will have the business ready for another day when they wake up in the morning.
Mainframes are still evolving, despite the current trend toward off-site computing. The ability of mainframes to automate job schedules and other tasks still makes them useful for retail businesses that need to reconcile a large number of transactions each month. The additional benefits of self-service and LOO also make mainframes a top choice of IT infrastructure.
SMA has decades of expertise providing automation solutions to customers using IBM mainframes. Schedule your consultation today to find out how we can make your business more resilient.