on September 20th, 2012

Dear Colleagues,

I wondered when I would write about this topic. Something which always amuses is the incredible longevity of some computers. In the context of IBM mainframes,as the old Roman sage, Ovid, living a few thousand years ago remarked:All things change; nothing perishes.

Ode to a  Mainframe
Many of you will no doubt remember the (Sperry Univac and IBM) mainframe (and indeed, minicomputers) - computers we worked with either on university campus or at work doing some form of exotic design (well, in the seventies and eighties) or number crunching. Well, Big Blue or IBM, still a massive computer company operating throughout the world, derives a quarter of its revenue from mainframes (and associated hardware, storage, software and services) and at least half of its profits. Although officially, the headline revenue from the traditional mainframes is supposedly only 4%, the detail is obviously somewhat more interesting.

Made Like a Scandinavian Refrigerator
The current IBM mainframe computer looks like an avant garde (Scandinavian ?) large refrigerator and is used for mission critical tasks such as credit card payments, artificial intelligence research and geophysical number crunching.
In the late eighties everyone started bolting from mainframes in favour of the utterly unreliable but hopelessly cheap PCs and perhaps more reliable minicomputers (such as the late lamented DEC range). And we all thought, the time of the mainframe, was almost over. Quite wrong, as it has turned out.

We need Mainframes
However today, the mainframe is in demand for number crunching at an unprecedented level with security as the number one item. The latest version is referred to as T-Rex (some IBM tongue-in-cheek humour referring to computer dinosaurs, obviously).

There is also an element of inertia in mainframes surviving. If you were a large financial institution or bank with security of data top of your mind; you would be rather unsure about changing across to a flotilla of PCs. The latest mainframe apparently cost over a billion dollars to develop (and sells for a million dollars each) – is utterly reliable and secure (built in or ‘impregnated’ through the hardware) and has embedded analytics to detect fraudulent activity. One of their most assiduous clients is the Bank of China who have been buying truckloads of mainframes.

Perhaps PCs, under massive assault from tablets and mobile (smart) phones, will not survive as long as mainframes ?

Thanks to the Economist for a rivetting article on Big Blue.

Yours in engineering learning


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