Mainframes: The Breed of Computer that Refuses to Die

Opinion: Moving critical computing operatings off the mainframe hit a roadblock in ensuring security and uptime in a perilous world.

It was nostalgia time in Boston last week. Imagine a group that was big in the 1960s but is still finding itself relevant and entertaining in 2005. Now who could that be? Surprise, but Im not talking about The Rolling Stones, which opened its current U.S. tour last week at Bostons Fenway Park. Fenway Park, as Im always happy to remind you, is the home of the World Champion Boston Red Sox, which saw an even longer run than the Stones between big hits (86 years). In addition to the Stones and the Sox, there was one other nostalgia trip last week that held some lessons for todays high-tech world.

Although the Stones concert was the topic of much media coverage last week, Boston was also the host of the annual IBM Share User-Driven Training Event & Expo, which marked its 50th anniversary. During the shows run, I spent a lunch hour with—of all people—members of a mainframe startup.

/zimages/5/28571.gifMainframes look healthy, alive and are still pointing the way toward which computing should be headed. Click here to read more.

Mainframes are the breed of computer that refuses to die despite being pronounced extinct on a regular basis. Mainframes hold the significant attribute of being securely designed from the outset rather than as an afterthought. IBM came out with its new z9 mainframe last month, and now Platform Solutions is championing its version of the new mainframe.

In a somewhat-convoluted history, which is available on its Web site (, the company can trace its roots to the original Sisyphus of the mainframe: Gene Amdahl. For daring to challenge IBMs dominance and monopoly in mainframe computing, Amdahl was burdened with the task of always creating IBM-challenging startups.

Unfortunately, however, they inevitably rolled over him due to a marketplace heading in a different direction—or, in the case of Trilogy Systems, rains that flooded the companys fabrication lines. Along the way, Amdahl was instrumental in jump-starting IBMs groundbreaking 360 Series (he was employed at IBM at least twice), creating the plug-compatible computing business at Amdahl Corp. and largely making sure that tech executives had another choice in the IBM mainframe marketplace.

The second-supplier innovation is still a large part of Platform Solutions strategy, explained company President and CEO Michael Maulick (himself a 22-year veteran of IBM). The trick was to build a mainframe based on Intels Itanium processor that was compatible with the IBM z/OS operating system but that could also simultaneously accommodate Unix, Linux or Windows running on a single managed server. "In the future, I believe enterprise systems will continue to run their databases on proprietary systems, while applications will run on open systems," said Maulick.

There is more to Platform Solutions plans than simple nostalgia. With much of the worlds computing resources still residing on mainframes and IBM continuing to roll up much of the middleware market through acquisitions, there is definitely a need for a second source. Where issues such as bundling the operating systems, tools and applications on proprietary systems once drew the attention of government anti-monopolist regulators, those regulators seem to have stopped caring about mainframe systems as attention shifted to the world of Windows and Intel. The move of critical computing operations off the mainframe has hit a roadblock of vendors that are unable to ensure security and uptime in a perilous world.

Sometimes nostalgia is appropriate to point the way to the future. As you are filling up your SUV, which gets about 12 miles to the gallon, maybe you should reflect on the 1908 Model T, which got 25 miles to the gallon. Maybe when you were paying $250 (or much more) for your Stones tickets, you were wishing you were at the Lynn, Mass., Stones concert in 1966, when the tickets cost just a fraction of todays price. (Are there any readers out there who know what the tickets cost? And what were the other acts?) Now it seems that nostalgia for the good, old days when mainframes ruled may be making a return. Then, security was ironclad, downtime was measured in seconds per year and even a monopoly had a few good competitors.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at [email protected].

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