Why the mainframe is still alive
For many computer science grads leaving school today, the term mainframe is probably completely unfamiliar, or at best will conjure up images of old IT departments still using punched cards and paper tape. The few that do recognize the term to refer to a major computing platform would see it as a historical development on the path from the earliest forms of computers to today’s LINUX or Windows servers. Mainframes fit the same model as dinosaurs—they used to rule the world in their day, but they have been extinct for ages.
These opinions are based on a combination of facts and heresay, but the truth is rather different. Mainframes did indeed rule the world; just about every single one of the Global 2000 corporations used mainframes, and the vast majority of commercial activities were underpinned with mainframe-based applications and databases. But with the advent of distributed computing, initially from companies like DEC and later from the massed ranks of PC suppliers, there was no shortage of influential voices raised to claim that the mainframe was dead.
The PR job picked up huge momentum, with IT executives realizing that making ‘getting rid of the mainframe’ a stated aim was a good career move. When this movement started, twenty years ago or so, the mainframe cost base was relatively large, with a fairly inflexible software and hardware pricing structure based around premium price points, so claiming to be on a path to remove these costs was seen as a positive step. The term ‘mainframe migration’ entered common parlance, and major analyst firms confidently predicted that mainframe usage and related expenditure would ‘fall of a cliff in 3-5 years’
So the mainframe is dead. It had its day in the 70s and 80s, but technology overtook it. But in that case, why is it still here? Why is it that the vast majority of large corporates still rely on the mainframe? Why is it still a central part of IT plans for so many users across the globe? Why is IBM still making so much money from selling a dead dinosaur?