After years of hype, client/server computing has begun to put a dent into old-style legacy systems.

The 1996 American Banker survey of bank technology found that 41% of the top 300 holding companies use networks of personal computers for applications once handled by mainframes. For new applications, the figure is an even higher 48%.

The shift to distributed computing was similarly evident at community banks with $100 million to $500 million of assets. Just 4% of the top 300 banks completely lack client/server technology.

But banks are not abandoning mainframes. Three-quarters of the top 100 banks planned to upgrade mainframe processing capacity this year.

Maintaining systems also accounted for more than two-thirds of banks' technology work load, the survey indicated. And at the top 100 banks, fully half of software developed in 1996 was written in Cobol, the programming language of mainframe computers.

Looking ahead a decade, big banks don't foresee client/server replacing legacy systems for many core applications. The survey found that even by 2005, 40% of the top 300 banks don't expect client/server to completely displace mainframes.

"We believe there will be a much more rapid growth in what we would generally classify as client/server solutions," said Dale Terrell, president of the Information Services Co. unit of Banc One Services Corp., Columbus, Ohio. But he added, "We still have a mixture of new things that are being implemented on both client/server and the more classical mainframe. We are actually investing money and new capital in both environments."

Paul Allen, chairman of Aston Associates, a bank investment and consulting firm based in New York, said the move toward client/server has been significant. While the dollar figures are small relative to overall budgets, dramatic reductions in fixed costs are in the offing. "It takes the whole direction and focus of technology spending away from technologists and brings it back to the market," he said.

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