Mainframes: Dinosaurs Reborn?

Opinion: Mainframes look healthy and alive and-most important-are still pointing the way toward which computing should be headed.

Ask a mainframe aficionado what he or she thinks about utility computing, computing on demand and virtual computing, and youll often get the answer that they are great ideas—and ones that have been part of the mainframe architecture since about the 1970s. Dont even ask about thin-client computing unless you want a lecture about time-sharing systems from the 1950s onward.

It was with that sense of historical trepidation that I stopped by the trendy W hotel on Lexington Avenue in New York to hear the announcement of IBMs latest mainframe system. Where once it seemed that mainframes were due to be relegated to the dinosaur exhibits at New Yorks American Museum of Natural History (IBMs previous mainframe model was nicknamed the T-Rex), Im here to report that mainframes look healthy and alive and—most important—are still pointing the way toward which computing should be headed.

/zimages/5/28571.gifMainframes get more secure. Click here to read more.

The timing seemed especially appropriate as IBM was talking up its new z9 mainframe at about the same time that Microsoft was renaming its next-generation "Longhorn" operating system to Windows Vista.

Both companies concentrated on security as a jumping-off point in a discussion of their respective architectures merits and moved on from there.

The z9 is a formidable-looking box; among the discussions of performance (1 billion transactions per day), bandwidth (172.8GB per second) and transistors (18 billion in the fully loaded 54-way configuration), IBM executives had the insight to focus on security as one of the main selling points.

In IBMs mainframe vision, the z9 acts as a hub for user authorization, access and detection services. The feature that I think drew the most interest from potential users is the ability to encrypt or decrypt data on the fly, whether that data is destined for an e-commerce transaction or a tape backup. The loss of data through hacking or lax standards and unauthorized access to systems and databases are by far the biggest concerns raised by technology executives when Ive talked with them about their corporate concerns.

While I find it strange that a company would want to instill excitement in a product by unfavorably comparing it with the previous version, the security list is notable for hitting many of the major problems that plague Windows users.

If previous versions of Windows included long lists of features aimed at improving the user interface, offering tight integration between the operating system and applications, or providing a world of data at your fingertips, Vistas security offerings promise a way—to be absolutely forthright—to narrow a users vista into his or her corporate computing environment.

IT administrators will find it much easier to lock down systems to a specified range of user applications and to narrow network access and filter content based on group policies. Encryption is improved (although certainly not at an on-the-fly application level) and can make use of Trusted Platform Module chips.

These are all good—and much-needed—features that fix current problems. You also get a new Sleep state, which seems to be a mix of Standby and Hibernate, two choices that always seemed to me to be the same. But you still have to click on the Start button to shut the system down; some things never change.

All of which brings me back to my original point about mainframes. If you opt for the hub IBM mainframe pitch—which calls for services running applications on an IBM box out to a bunch of narrowly locked-down Vista-based systems overseen and managed by a central IT administrator—arent you running a system that looks a lot like the vista of computing as imagined by proponents of the 1950s time-sharing services? Thats how it looks to me.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at

Security provisions are also a big part of Microsofts pitch for Vista. A visit to the Vista beta site ( puts security atop the list of feature improvements.

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