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Mainframes at 50: Where is the Industry Going?

It happens once every five or 10 years. A computer-industry pundit, impressed with the power of new developments in silicon-based processing, pronounces the imminent death of the mainframe. Decade after decade, however, sales have remained robust as the mainframe has remained the platform of choice for big data and heavy transaction volume.

Happy Birthday, S/360

IBM held a 50th birthday party for the mainframe this year, commemorating the launch of the System/360 in 1964. Mainframe computers were actually more than a decade old in 1964. IBM itself unveiled its 700 series in 1953. But the System/360 was a mass-market mainframe that helped IBM consolidate its position in the mainframe world and it dominated that world for decades.

Once again, industry experts contend that the era of big iron is coming to an end. The mainframe’s awesome processing power has been eclipsed, they say, by arrays of smaller systems working collaboratively – notably by Hadoop in its different guises. Mainframe critics cite shrinking demand for IBM’s current products as proof that the game is up.

Defying Death

Such claims fail in the face of facts, however. Banks, retailers, utilities, and retailers all rely upon mainframes to track high volumes of transactions and crunch terabytes of data. IBM claims that 96 of the world’s top 100 banks from the Series/360’s descendants with mainframes are processing 30 billion transactions per day. IBM mainframes handle $23 billion in ATM transactions and $6 trillion in credit and debit card transactions each year, the company says.

Today’s largest and most active Web companies run their business on tightly clustered server farms that rely upon fast networking, virtualization, and central management to support mission-critical tasks. These server clusters rival mainframes in power, but are best used as complements, not replacements, for big iron.

Those clustered servers will continue to spread quickly through the tech world, including niches once occupied by mainframes, experts say. But the net effect may be a growth in demand for mainframes.

What the Future Holds

If a half century of history tells us anything it is this: The mainframe will adapt and remain relevant. Already, mainframes partnered with Hadoop server clusters are solving problems that neither architecture could manage before. Inexpensive, commodity servers running parallel processes with Hadoop prepare and format data, which is then processed with the mainframe’s unparalleled data-crunching capacity. Indeed, at its mainframe birthday celebration IBM announced new Hadoop capabilities for its current line of mainframes.

The projected proliferation of smart devices – the so-called Internet of Things – promises to bring an explosion of data to manage, massage, explore, and archive. Cloud computing, too, is an application area well-suited to the mainframe’s strengths.

The growth in Big Data, in cloud computing, in international networking of real-time financial transactions…all of this suggests that the mainframe could well be with us for another 50 years.


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