Don Moore

Big Iron: TekSpeak’s Guide To Mainframes

In Business, computers on August 20, 2010 at 1:01 AM

As much as we rely on computers in our daily lives, the public is pretty clueless about any computer bigger than the modern desktop. Case in point: mainframes. Mainframe is one of those terms that pops up all the time in sci fi or hacker movies. It sounds cool, and more importantly, it’s esoteric, so it’s safe to use it as a plot device. But most people have no clue what a mainframe is, or what it does. We at TS are going to do an in depth guide to the machines affectionately known as “Big Iron”.

The Basics

First thing you should know: mainframes are big. They’re bordering on massive. In fact, the massiveness is part of what makes a mainframe a mainframe. Mainframes are a step up from what are known as “minicomputers”, which themselves are a step up from so called “microcomputers”: what we know as the PC. In this regard, mainframes resemble computers of the 50’s more than they do modern HPs or Macs.

What Do They Do?

Simply put, mainframes are number crunchers. In contrast to personal computers, which are designed for multitasking, mainframes are the kings of monotony. They handle large, repetitive data processing with ease, for long periods of time: most are designed with the ability to have storage taken out while still running, allowing them to operate pretty much indefinitely if implemented properly. IBM coined the term Reliability, Availability, and Serviceability to describe its line of mainframes. These things are built to last.

Who Makes Them?

IBM has virtually cornered the market on mainframes: they have an estimated 90% market share.

Wait… Aren’t Mainframes Just A Type Of Supercomputer?

In a word, no. While ostensibly similar–they’re both really big computers- mainframes and supercomputers perform different tasks. While mainframes are used primarily for the reliable, uninterrupted processing commercial transactions for businesses, supercomputers are used to solve a complex problems–or multiple problems- extremely quickly. Think of mainframes as really advanced cash registers, while supercomputers are really advanced chess engines.

How Long Will They Be Around For?

No one really knows. Mainframes have performed their jobs admirably for decades, but the days of needing huge, dedicated machines to perform the kind of tasks mainframes are designed for may be coming to a close. Intel based servers are performing a lot of the same roles, at a fraction of the cost. The increased reliance on newer technologies leads to an even more pressing problem: as less engineers are trained to use mainframes, the remaining mainframe specialists are getting old. Large corporations still place a large premium on the qualities that for now, only mainframes can provide. Which means that for the foreseeable future, Big Irons are here to stay.


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