The IBM mainframe 50th anniversary: Golden oldie or modern marvel?

Spare a thought for American Stewart Alsop Jr who, despite a sterling career in IT journalism will forever be remembered for this quote: “I predict that the last mainframe will be unplugged on 15 March, 1996.” Let’s hope he kept the receipt for his crystal ball.

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He backtracked on his words in February 2002 with “Corporate customers still like … centrally controlled, very predictable, reliable computing systems – exactly the kind of systems that IBM specialize in.” It’s not as though he had any choice. The evidence was so stacked against him to the extent that he had to eat his words.

Let’s hope he left room for seconds because the current incarnation of the mainframe, IBM’s zEnterprise, is still providing MIPS for the masses, five decades on.

Mainframes – the business machines

They underpin the business processes of the big financial, healthcare and insurance houses. It’s likely that almost any company charged with processing vast amounts of data will use a mainframe as part of their IT ecosystem.

Whether you’re online looking for an insurance quote, or using an ATM on the high street, mainframes are the power behind the screens. They support everything from a handful of terminals to tens of thousands of online screens. Companies use them to harness their processing power and massive memory: many support multiple gigabytes of main memory and terabytes of disk storage.

It’s all a far cry from the 350 RAMAC, built in 1956, by IBM (or ‘International Business Machines’ as they were then). It used a stack of fifty, 24” disks as memory, which held about 4.4MB of data – just enough to store the pictures used in this article.

Since then, the mainframe – the hub of any centralized enterprise IT setup – has come to permeate almost every level of our day-to-day lives. From cash dispensers to online insurance quotes, we interact with mainframes through the enterprise-scale applications they support. It’s a winning system that a risk-averse CIO is unlikely to change. Bearing in mind the consequences of system failure, it’s an understandable attitude.

Time to change?

However, in a world where IT continues to power forward, and ‘change’ is often confused with ‘progress’, their longevity can work against them. The industry nickname, ‘old iron’, doesn’t help. Mainframes have an image problem and, as the demands grow for more agile systems that deliver more innovation, it’s difficult to reconcile a technology in its sixth decade with the technology we carry around in our pockets or use at home.

At the very time when couples entering 50 years together would be celebrating their golden anniversary, some mainframe owners are contemplating divorce.

Don’t touch that dial …

But mainframes have their supporters. More often than not, they are the people using them. And this includes the overwhelming majority of large global organizations in many vertical industries. Companies like the reliability of mainframes which are hardwired to detect and correct errors. Every subsystem is continually monitored and – in some models – will list all the parts that need to be replaced at the next service. They are highly scalable, adding CPUs can massively boost performance, and remain incredibly powerful.

By sharing non-critical activities or workload across peripheral computers, mainframes can focus their energy on the heavy lifting and reliable performance that other systems simply can’t match. Risk is another concern, as the key application may be so enmeshed in the applications added over many years that extracting any part of the mainframe estate can pose a considerable risk to the day-to-day running of the business.

Another way

As we’ve established, CIOs are loath to risk many years’ worth of irreplaceable and unique IP. Rip and replace can be as traumatic as it sounds and as we’ve discovered, change doesn’t always equal progress. It’s also legitimate to query whether it’s the platform or the application that’s the problem. After all, if you are looking to improve value, it may be worth tweaking and tuning the engine rather than replacing the vehicle.

German Telekom uses a mainframe system called KONTES which designed in the 1970s and the US Secret Service still uses a 1980s mainframe. And most high street banks rely on a mainframe of a certain vintage. Why? Because they are reliable, solid machines that keep on delivering. As we’ve established, it’s a brave motorist who surrenders a good runner for an unknown alternative.

Micro Focus has long supplemented the efficient running of the mainframe environment. We’re a complement to the IBM offering, helping to maximise the value of the mainframe environment. Whether finding their way in the dark forest of undocumented applications, improving the end user experience to improve efficiency, streamlining their development to support Eclipse, improving testing processes to accelerate service delivery, or looking at flexible workload management, Micro Focus has a well-stocked mainframe kit-bag.

Simply put, Micro Focus help IBM customers get more agility and improved performance out of their mainframes.

Our suite of tools – the Micro Focus Enterprise product set –can improve the delivery of IBM zEnterprise business applications by up to 50 per cent. User efficiency can increase by more than 100 per cent.

Micro Focus and IBM

Like the mainframe itself, Micro Focus is building on an industry-leading heritage. We have built complementary products for IBM platforms for more than three decades. Our most recent work has been to support the IBM zEnterprise product line with a range of application development products that enable mainframe owners to efficiently build and deliver core zEnterprise systems.

It’s a relationship that IBM is happy to acknowledge. In April 2013, Greg Lotko, former VP and business line executive, IBM System z, said, “We are continually working with our technology partners to help our clients maximise the value in their IBM mainframes and this latest innovation from Micro Focus is a great example of that commitment.”

 The Next 50 Years

So as we celebrate 50 years of mainframe computing, it’s a time to look to the future. And while it’s amusing to see images of ‘old-school’ mainframes, it’s worth remembering that (like the clothes and hairstyles of those operating them), at one time these were all considered cutting-edge. What will we be laughing at in 50 years’ time?

Discover more about how Micro Focus can complement the IBM zEnterprise range here.

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