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Friday, January 10, 2014

‘Someones hacked into the mainframe!’ View of the mainframe from the 1990s.

‘The Mainframe’ to those born in the 90’s probably refers to a scene in a Hollywood action film where the villain has ‘hacked into the mainframe’ causing all sorts of problems for James Bond and John McClane. In fact, only last week on Celebrity Big Brother were the words ‘hack into the mainframe’ uttered referring to a plastic screen on an extremely unrealistic alien space ship, so you can excuse the confusion that people have when referring to the platform. Although those within the industry understand how detrimental a malicious act like this would be for any business, I’m sure most are also aware that of all the platforms running, the mainframe would more than likely be the last to suffer a security breech. This year in April we celebrate the 50th birthday of the mainframe, now often referred to as the System Z Platform, so I feel it’s a relevant time to address some of the myths and speculation surrounding the platform.

Like most people my age I had little experience of the mainframe until I started working for IBM where I have developed an understanding into this super computer and a month ago I saw my first z196 in the flesh. The common misconception amongst 20-something year olds is that the mainframe is a ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ piece of hardware and this is a myth that I would like dispel. A computer that used to be larger than my living room is now 201.3cm tall, 156.5cm wide and 186.7cm deep making it a much more practical solution for customers. Although some clients previously attempted to move away from the mainframe, we are beginning to witness a trend of customers proactively moving workloads back onto the platform to benefit from the scalability and energy cost savings. These are typical mainframe customers such as large banks and large retailers who have to process an extremely vast amount of data daily.

A development that actually happened during 90s has not been given enough attention in my opinion and that is the integration of Linux onto the System Z Platform. This is a development that allows the mainframe to act in a very similar ways to other X based distributed platforms, bridging the gap between the two. I think it is something that should be highlighted, especially within our software division as if the software is installed with this in mind it will also run Linux on the distributed platform, giving the customer more choice as to where they put specific workloads.

So when asking the question around what the mainframe means to those from the 90s, the answer will massively depend on whom you ask. Those from a non technical background might say, “a company’s main computer” whereas some within the industry, could say “the platform that IBM used to sell software on.” For myself I see it as somewhere that over the next decade will begin to become ever more prominent within the technology industry. The reasoning behind changing the name to System Z was to refer to the almost ‘zero’ downtime that the hardware was capable of and to give an ‘old’ dog a new name. But why change the name of something that gains publicity within popular culture? If I told my friends I worked in mainframe software, they would think that I had somehow gained some fantastic technical expertise, but when I say System Z, they look at me blankly.

With the half century anniversary of the mainframe this year I am sure that there will be a lot of developments, innovation and press surrounding the platform and the vision for it in the future.
The most I can hope for from this blog is to engage with those, like myself, born in the 1990’s in a time when IBM had failed to invest in their core hardware and to challenge their perception of the platform, but on a wider scale, anyone who has their doubts about System Z as a platform. I agree that in some cases it is not the right way to go, however, not considering utilizing a mainframe that already exists within an organization is a cardinal sin.

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