Not Your (Grand)father’s Mainframe: From the ‘50s to Today

By Andrew Grzywacz

The mainframe has been around for approximately six decades. If your first reaction to that is, “Wow, and it’s still around?” you likely aren’t the only one. For years, ironically, people both within and outside of our industry have held the mainframe’s age against it, as if it were evidence of the mainframe perhaps not functioning as well it used to or not being as necessary as it used to be. In an age where we’re trading up to new smartphones or tablets literally every year, surely a computer that’s 60 years old must be past its prime, right?

Just the opposite: the mainframe today is more relevant and critical than ever to how businesses can maintain their increasingly complex IT infrastructures and process ever-growing sums of data.

So, what is it that has people thinking the mainframe is some kind of fossil of a bygone era? Part of it boils down to education. A lot of the old staples of mainframe operations, like Assembler language, are simply not a part of today’s computer science or engineering curriculum. Another part of it is the observation that many of today’s and yesterday’s mainframe champions are retiring from the workforce.

Both of these are true – but don’t let that fool you think into thinking the mainframe’s days are numbered, or that it’s somehow unequipped to deal with the IT challenges of today or tomorrow. On the contrary, the mainframe has stuck around for as long as it has because of its versatility and adaptability to new disruptions like the cloud or mobile.

This isn’t your father’s or your grandfather’s mainframe. The mainframe has evolved by leaps and bounds from its early days, and is (still) perfectly positioned to tackle the IT tasks of the 21st century.

A Hybrid View of the Cloud and Mainframe

The mainframe and the cloud seem like they should sit on opposites ends of the computing spectrum. On the one end, a completely centralized, on-site physical system that effectively acts as a data processing island unto itself; on the other end, a ubiquitous platform that lives on the Internet and can, theoretically, be accessed by virtually anyone.

The popularity of the cloud – from platforms like Microsoft Office 365 and Google Cloud Platform to SaaS like Dropbox or Salesforce – is exactly what has prompted a handful of critics today to (wrongly) declare the death of the mainframe at the cloud’s hands. But, the two are hardly mutually exclusive, and the mainframe has neither ignored nor defied cloud’s surging prominence in today’s data storing, processing and archiving needs.

IBM’s Hybrid Cloud Z Systems, for instance, are designed to take a hybrid approach that balances an enterprise’s more sensitive data stored on-premises with its pubic cloud needs, providing reliable performance and strict security requirements for both without compromising on either.

What Mobile Means to Mainframe

Like cloud, mobile seems like it should be fundamentally at odds with the more closed-off nature of the mainframe. But, as Tom Dunlap, a CICS Immersion instructor at SHARE Atlanta, notes, the truth is just the opposite. In fact, mobile is, if anything, the future of mainframe. Android, for instance, is pushing CICS as a major part of their mobile programming forward – and CICS is already being used today for processing approximately 85 percent of our typical daily transactions, such as with ATMs and credit cards. As those transactions move increasingly to the mobile space, the mainframe and CICS in particular are going to play an instrumental role for managing this level of data processing.

This is just the tip of iceberg. SHARE is a global community of mainframe professionals looking to cultivate the next generation of mainframe users and spread the word about how mainframe is, now more than ever, positioned to best tackle the Big Data and app challenges of the 21st century.


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