Modernising a dinosaur
Some things, your average person on the street knows virtually nothing about – among them: astrophysics, neurosurgery, the microbiome, and mainframe computers.
So when you devise a way to revolutionise one of those fields and want to convince others to test or invest in it, a whole lot of explaining needs to be done first.
That’s the situation Frank Fera, Ben Pearson and Hayden Locke have been facing. Their company, Mainframe Cloud (MFC), is a venture they hope will alter the mainframe landscape for good.
In case you were wondering, mainframes are those giant master computers that organisations such as banks, airlines and insurance companies use to securely store and access vital, complex information. They’re responsible for processing up to 80% of the world’s business data, from credit card payments and airline bookings to insurance claims and phone records. Often running numerous operating systems, mainframes are designed to work at full capacity all the time.
But why do they need revolutionising?
Well, in an age where you can download a smartphone app in 30 seconds, mainframes are digital dinosaurs—a hangover from the early ’50s, they’ve barely changed in the last half century and use a language known by a small group of ageing programmers. IBM owns 90% of the mainframe hardware market and is also one of four global vendors of mainframe software. Their high software licensing fees make these super computers very expensive to run.
‘Because they’re such a mission-critical piece of hardware, you have to do a lot of testing of the software prior to installation,’ explains Ben. ‘You can’t just buy new software and install it on your mainframe the next day. An organisation can spend three to 24 months testing software on a test mainframe before it’s even allowed into their production environment, onto their real mainframe.’
So, mainframes have become legacy systems with no suitable alternative… until now.
Australian startup MFC has developed a suite of software applications with the potential to drastically reduce the cost and time constraints of mainframe ownership. Co-founder Frank Fera has invented what he believes is an almost-too-good-to-be-true way to update the software on a mainframe computer without needing to take it out of action.
‘With the significant amount of time required to test a product before it’s put into a production environment, mainframe customers – and even the software providers themselves – don’t have much appetite for new products,’ says Frank. ‘Developing the product and doing pre-installation testing is like walking through treacle.’
MFC’s novel software-on-demand solution is based on a user-intuitive interface where click, drag and drop replaces the existing ‘green screen’ DOS-based commands of the old mainframe coding languages.
‘Essentially, we’re bringing Windows to mainframes,’ says Frank. ‘The big challenge with the mainframe is the very complex architecture behind it, which wasn’t created to ensure a modern, user-friendly interface.’
He’s developed the ability to run mainframe software without having to physically install it on the mainframe. Instead, the software runs on a customer’s PC, which connects to the mainframe via a clever black box agent. This tiny box uses just a few hundred lines of code (less than 1% of the programming space required by current mainframe software products) and allows MFC to add new software applications and updates without the need for testing.
‘Our approach has the potential to generate huge efficiencies in the testing and installation of mainframe software,’ says Ben. ‘It not only provides the same level of functionality as existing products, but it also allows for the development of a vast array of new software applications.
‘It brings incredible agility and flexibility. We can provide software patches, rapidly develop new products, and be more responsive to our customers’ needs. The MFC technology has the ability breathe life back into mainframes and eliminate all the reasons CTOs and CIOs hate their mainframes. It’s a solution that speeds up and modernises the whole process and drags it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.’
While it currently takes three to five days to install software onto a mainframe, MFC’s solution lets a user download the software online to their PC from the company’s web server. Best case scenario, it can be up and running in minutes. MFC aims to eventually develop a mainframe app store called Mainspace.
‘We don’t need people to go in and install our software so that keeps costs down,’ says Ben. ‘We can implement new features and improvements that customers can enjoy the next time they log on. We refer to it as a hybrid cloud solution – it’s cloud deployment, which is what everyone wants these days, but their software runs within their own firewall and intranet, so it’s safe. There’s zero configuration complexity and we’re delivering something new that they’ve all been searching for.’
MFC is now talking to several Australian organisations about beta testing their product, and has already signed one up.
‘They know they need a better solution and it’s really captured their imagination,’ says Ben. ‘For a new company like ours, it’s phenomenal to have an organisation agree to beta test our product.’
When your new technology has the potential to disrupt an established industry, protecting it is vital. But finding the right intellectual property expert could have been challenging for Mainframe Cloud.
‘What we’re doing is exciting, but it’s also incredibly hard because when you’re working in an area like mainframes the level of understanding is pretty minimal,’ says Frank. ‘We’ve spent hours pitching to venture capitalists and we’ve struggled because people don’t know enough about the complexities of mainframes and the size of the market, so it’s difficult to educate people about how we can revolutionise the industry.’
Fortunately, MFC found Joe Seisdedos, an intellectual property expert at AJ Park. Having worked with mainframes during the ’90s, Joe immediately grasped the significance of the company’s solution.
‘Joe is very technical; he knows the industry,’ says Frank. ‘After we described it all, there was a bit of a pause and he looked at us and said ‘you have rather an extraordinary invention here with the potential to disrupt the mainframe industry.’ It’s amazing when a patent attorney tells you something like that. He got it straight away. Having a patent attorney immediately understand what we were talking about was such a relief.’
AJ Park has devised an IP strategy for Mainframe Cloud that would give them a foothold in the Australian and US markets, says Joe.
‘In some areas of the IT market there are lots of small startups, but this is a market that’s very conservative and risk averse, and perhaps even more aware of IP issues than newer sections of the IT industry,’ he says. ‘It’s rare for a small company to enter this space. All their competitors have been around for 30 or 40 years.
‘We filed patents initially in both Australia and the US so they’d have some pending applications from day one, which would let them approach US investors.’
While many software companies are earning good revenue without patenting their products, Mainframe Cloud see their intellectual property and patents as the cornerstone of their business.
‘We want to be regarded as a true innovator in the space. To do that, you have to have genuinely good inventions,’ says Ben. ‘It’s critical to have rock-solid IP protection if we want to take this to the US where investors want to know that you have some solid IP, including trade marks and domain names. Sorting it all out can be a big distraction, but to have people like AJ Park in our corner makes a huge difference.’
Balancing the benefits against the costs has been important, and AJ Park has been able to recommend the most cost-effective ways to protect MFC’s innovations.
Now, the biggest challenges lie ahead as they commercialise and release the product to market. But the trio anticipate a level of scepticism among those who run mainframes.
‘Mainframes are such a mission-critical piece of hardware for an organisation, and our solution is so simple it almost defies belief,’ says Frank. ‘They don’t get that; they want to find the inherent complexity that just isn’t there. Ironically, the simplicity of our solution will be challenging for us.’
MFC’s initial goal is to encourage organisations to engage in beta testing and use that feedback to refine their offering. Over the next 12 months, they’ll work to solidify their presence in Australasia, sign up some customers and demonstrate the significant benefits of their solution.
‘We know we can reduce the strategic risks for government organisations and help them achieve their particular imperatives,’ says Ben. ‘Ideally, we’d like to work with a big bank, insurance company or airline so we can round out our offering and demonstrate that we can perform across a range of industry types.’
Written by Deirdre Coleman