'Framing the Future: Part 3 - Mainframe as PC?

Reg Harbeck’s interview of Connor Krukosky

There is nothing less PC than a mainframe – right? If a “personal computer” is a PC, then a mainframe is an EC (enterprise class) or BC (business class) computer. If PC stands for “politically correct” like cosmetically inoffensive interfaces, then the mainframe is the uncomfortable underlying truth that allows all of the surface stuff to survive. For that matter, if we mean “parsec” by pc , well, as Rear Admiral Grace Hopper never tired of reminding people, the mainframe is more readily measured in light nanoseconds (and smaller units).

And yet, after my interview of Connor Krukosky, I’m forced to admit that the term PC (or pc) can paradoxically also apply to mainframes.

OK, let me admit it: I know the first PC’s were under CP. I never need to have guessed about VM guests. But humor me here: Since Time Magazine declared the PC “Man of the Year” in 1982 (back when perceptions about both gender and computing were a bit skewed), very few people have realized how personal the mainframe is.

Of course it’s personal. It’s got all the data of record about you. Oh – but that’s not the main thing.

See, the thing is, we want to have free rein to experiment, try stuff, break it and put it back together. You know, like people do on their mainframe sandbox LPAR – if they’re lucky enough to have access to it. For the rest of us, there used to be our office PC. Now, of course, that’s so locked down we have to use our smartphone – unless that’s work-issued and locked down too. In that case, you’re out of luck, and will have to pay for your technical playground yourself.

Which is what Connor did.

So you see, PC really does refer to having personal access to control your own computer. Consequently, when Connor bought his own mainframe, you could really say, “This time, it’s personal!”

And what did he put on this massive PC? Well, you know he didn’t put Windows in his ‘frame.

Windows? Yes, they do have a role with the mainframe, as Connor points out: “That’s one thing I really do love about the mainframe, is that I look back at all these old computers, and they were made like you could throw ‘em out a window and they’d still work. And nowadays it’s all built as thin and light, and with the least amount of durability as they can get away with. But the mainframe: their machines help run the world. They can’t skimp on any of that.”

So for Connor, the role of Windows with the mainframe is mainly about defenestration. But he did install penguins!

Oh, don’t have a bird: I’m not contradicting my statement about eagles in the previous article. I’m talking about the mascot of Linux. You know, mascots like the VM teddy bear and the MVS eagle. Well, the Linux mascot is Tux the penguin.

And Connor, like a true modern computer nerd (sorry, but that’s now a compliment, deal with it), knows his Linux and discovered that it would be much easier and more affordable to put on his mainframe than current versions of IBM’s world-class mainframe operating systems.

As you might imagine, the folks at SUSE were delighted in his interest – even after they found out he wasn’t a corporate prospect. And, so the prospect of having a fully running mainframe was realized in a spectacularly economical manner (basement walls notwithstanding).

Before long, Connor had a range of different services running on his personal mainframe under Linux, such as FTP, and he even had some folks lining up more than single file to ping him. But not as many as you might guess. After all, non-mainframers generally don’t know what to make of our great platform – or even that it still exists. And mainframers, well, we’ve kind of learned to be careful with it over the years, robustness and all.

“Well, and I found that with a lot of people who, on IBM-Main, right, when I set it up and had it online for people to dial in, I said “Have fun.” And nobody would touch it, everybody was scared to, because that’s what they learn in their careers, you don’t mess with the mainframe, you don’t play with it, because if you break something, you are in trouble. But of course, I wasn’t going to say that.”

Fortunately, Connor is now a role model for all those of us who have perhaps become too timid to play with the mainframe. And he even enjoys our lovely legacy 3270 “green screen” interface. After all, as Connor shared, “I love XEdit, and its column editing, and all these little tools that ... It’s really impressive. And you know, people think, “Oh, yeah, the 3270 interface, it’s old, outdated,” but then they’ll go to Linux and use a terminal. It’s the same thing, but, with the 3270 interface, it’s been designed, it’s been built up over a really, really, really long time, whereas, on Linux, it basically got VT100 compatible in the ‘80s, and then they basically stuck with that.”

I agree. And thinking of the Windows screen of death, Connor reminds me of one of my favorite mainframe epigrams: “I’ll take a green screen over a blue screen any day!”

So then, the mainframe can indeed be personal, and even personable.

Next time you think of mainframe and PC, then, perhaps it would be good to think, “Penguin Central!”

But of course those are just the OS and presentation layers. There’s more to it than that when assembling a mainframe … next time!

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