Friday, November 11, 2005

Mainframes are forever

Not to mention a girl's best friend.

The IBM Mainframe is more than 40 years old, having been announced in April 1964. I have personally been associated with it for the better part of that time. In 1977, upon returning from a sabbatical to the Watson Research Center where I was a research staff member in Computer Sciences, I joined a project aimed at exploring what it would take to design a mainframe 20-times faster than our then-fastest machine, which ran at all of 5 MIPS (millions of instructions per second.).

Since then, many have predicted that the mainframe was dying and would soon disappear, some because they were competitors hoping to get customers to replace the mainframe with their product, others because they truly could not imagine anything this "old" still having value in an industry where new things show up at such an incredible rate.

I myself often wondered what it was about the IBM mainframe that kept it going while most other computer platforms from the '50s, '60s and '70s are long gone. These musings are no mere academic exercise -- certainly not from IBM's point of view. The more we understand what has kept mainframes going, the better prepared we will be to keep them going well into the future. And the more we understand them, the better prepared we will be to maintain the increasingly sophisticated and complex infrastructures which, like the mainframe, are not likely to be replaced anytime soon -- the Internet, World Wide Web and Grids, for example.

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