Golden-Oldie Lessons

Why do mainframes continue to inhabit the planet? That they work as advertised is probably the immediate answer.

Vendors and prognosticators are either wringing their hands looking for the next big thing or worrying that IT has become a low-priced commodity to be purchased like electricity or paper clips. They could learn a thing or two from mainframes, pay phones and backhoes.

Heres why. The mainframe business has been predicted to die ever since IBM developed the Model 704 in 1957. Full-time venture capitalist and part-time Fortune columnist Stewart Alsop predicted that the last mainframe would be unplugged in 1996. This month, IBM once again proved Alsops and others predictions to be ludicrously off the mark by introducing the z990, code-named T-Rex. The advance of Intel-based microprocessors and Microsoft software was supposed to be the equivalent of the cataclysmic asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. It has been little more than a summer meteor shower.

Why do mainframes continue to inhabit the planet? That they work as advertised is probably the immediate answer. The stories about old mainframes still cranking out reports and doing financials on some proprietary program written in the 1970s are legion. A second reason is that if you are willing to invest—say, about $1 billion over four years—you can make a mainframe that looks a lot like what IBM is selling.

"We continue to invest in those features and capabilities our customers are asking for," Peter McCaffrey, IBMs director of product marketing for the zSeries of mainframes, told me. Combining the reliability and scale of mainframes with recent developments such as Linux has created an alluring platform for e-commerce.

Whats more, working on a platform that pundits are forever declaring extinct has proved motivational to IBM engineers. "Every once in a while, they have a good laugh over it. In the end, it drives our engineers to constantly reinvent the platform," said McCaffrey.

Now, pay phones. They are ubiquitous and yet underused in this era of cell phones. When Intel introduced its wireless chips under the Centrino label, it produced a movie, ostensibly humorous, that included a spoof on pay phones. Now, Verizon is striking back by adding wireless hot-spot capabilities to its pay phones. Starting in New York, Verizon is making hot-spot access for 802.11-enabled devices free for Verizon Internet access customers.

This is a smart move for Verizon and a challenge to all those venture capitalists who were betting on the vendors of equipment youd need to be wirelessly logging on at McDonalds as you scarf down your Big Mac. Philip Nutsugah, executive director for broadband wireless at Verizon, said the company intends to have 1,000 pay phone hot spots in New York by years end.

Now take a guess what the following quote refers to. "Every feature was designed with productivity, serviceability and reliability in mind." No, its not Scott McNealy trying to persuade you to buy more Solaris, and its not Bill Gates contending he finally has the security thing under control. The quote was part of a press release for the new John Deere 710G backhoe introduced in January and replete with new features and technologies. In a 1997 article on titled "50 Ways to Crash the Net," security expert Simson Garfinkel included buying 10 backhoes as one of the 50. Thats because, back then, critical Internet backbones too often ran through underground cables, which too frequently fell victim to the digging of backhoes.

When a backhoe blade sliced through a cable and cut off Internet access to a big chunk of Boston on May 13, I started to wonder if backhoe technology is evolving faster than the physical security of the Internet.

I tracked down Garfinkel, now going for his doctorate at MIT. While it might take more than 10 backhoes to do the job now, the physical security of the Internets routers, name servers and associated hardware remains far too vulnerable for the elevated threats the Net faces, Garfinkel said. "There is a very high risk of physical damage. People tend to forget about physical security," he said.

Part of progress is the illusion that we leave some things behind. But some golden-oldie technologies stick around for a reason. Theyre good at what they do. Still, that backhoe technology remains one step ahead of Internet architects should give us all pause.