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Tales In Tech History: The Mainframe

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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The ultimate tech survivor? Big iron computers began life back in the early 1950s and are still in use today

Mainframe computers began life back in the 1950s and back then were built by a number of computer makers including IBM, Honeywell, NCR, General Electric, among others.

It was actually IBM that built the first mainframe back in 1952, and these heavy duty computers were very big (we are talking office or basement sized), hence their ‘big iron’ nickname. Mainframes were also very expensive (often millions of dollars).

Nowadays mainframes are mostly the size of a modern day refrigerator, and purchase costs for entry level models typically start at $75,000.

IBM z13Tech Survivor

These big iron machines were originally designed for cold war entities such as the US department of Defence, but later other government departments and large enterprises found uses for these behemoth machines.

Mainframes for example are still used heavily in the banking sector.

The one thing mainframes having going for them is the ability to crunch vast qualities of transactions securely and reliably. Indeed, IBM claims that its modern z13 mainframe for example can process 2.5 billion transactions a day.

Mainframes are thus a juggernaut of a machine, able to handle very high volume input and output (I/O) and such is the industrial grade reliability of these machines, that many mainframes lasted for decades.

Indeed, mainframes typically outlast humans, which has lead to a very real mainframe skills shortage that the industry still is working hard to resolve.

Early mainframe models had virtually no user interface, typically punched cards, paper tape, or magnetic tape to transfer data and programs.

In the 1970s mainframes did gain a functioning user interface and these machines were often operated on a time-sharing basis, an operating model that helped the mainframe owner reap some financial reward for their huge outlay.

UnivacOperatorConsole unisys mainframe data centreIn the 1980s support was added for graphical terminals (not a GUI), but by the 2000 most of these ‘green screen’ interfaces were phased out and replaced by web-based interfaces.

New Uses

In the 1990s some industry observers believed the age of the mainframe was about to end. Personal computers were rife and servers were cheap.

But even high-end servers could not compete with the mainframe in terms of its sheer processing grunt and its ability to handle complex tasks simultaneously. And businesses found new ways to utilise their big iron machines.

And we are not talking about supercomputers. It should be remembered that supercomputers are the persevere of the few, because they are very expensive (often millions of dollars). Sure, supercomputers technically have more power under the hood, but they can only typically process a single highly complex problem at once.

The mainframe on the other hand can process thousands of queries simultaneously.

Mainframes are thus the ultimate tech survivor. They have survived numerous technology trends such as client-server computing, and have taken the advent of more modern trends such as cloud computing, virtualisation, and mobile applications (and transactions) in their stride.

And mainframes are still being made today. IBM for example still makes big iron, but there are others as well including Unisys, HP, Hitachi, Fujitsu and Groupe Bull.

In the end, the key to the survival of the mainframe is the fact it is still a powerhouse for tasks such as transactions.

And as the world goes increasingly mobile, it may surprise people to find out that there is often a mainframe sitting quietly in the background, processing their requests.

Are you old school? Try our IBM quiz!