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April 7, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 11:15am

5 reasons the mainframe is still relevant 50 years on

Today marks the 50th birthday of the IBM mainframe. Here’s why it’s still going strong.

By Joe Curtis

IBM’s System 360 mainframe was first revealed on this date in 1964. While other technologies have come and gone, the mainframe has remained a stalwart of the business: despite the rise of distributed systems and cloud, some reports suggest 80% of the world’s corporate data still resides on mainframes.

Here CBR talks to Micro Focus and CA Technologies about why the dinosaur of business infrastructure isn’t likely to become extinct for a good while yet.

Hey, guess what? We’ve still got a lot of information

The mainframe transformed the way companies stored customer data. Half a century later and the world has got even more information to store (most of which has only been generated in the last few years). With all that data, we still need a place to put it.

Ed Airey, product manager at Micro Focus, says: "Most mainframe applications and systems today are very large repositories for customer data.

"Where we start is sometimes where we end up. We’re still reliant on many of the same systems that we started with. It’s very much true of the mainframe system. It’s robust, resilient and it’s continued to evolve."

Cloud isn’t yet ubiquitous

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But doesn’t the cloud just do all that? According to Airey, "the mainframe was actually the first cloud". It’s a fair point, but it’s also accurate to say many larger companies still put most of their structured data in their own systems, rather than the cloud. Airey adds: "It’s hosting applications and systems in shared time; cloud is just a different way of looking at the same thing."

What will be interesting is whether mainframes prove scalable enough to deal with the amount of data pouring out of the Internet of Things in a decade or so when it really takes off…

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Companies do a lot of the same things they used to do

Banks still use mainframes to handle transactions and store a heck of a lot of information. Airey points out: "What organisations are doing isn’t drastically different to 50 years ago. A lot of organisations are happy number crunching or doing high throughput particularly credit card transaction processing. The mainframe suits a variety of use cases still very common today."

But we don’t access those services the same way

However, while banks’ mainframes deal with transactions, they’re getting on now and are having trouble dealing with the volume and frequency of transactions we’re able to do today just from our mobile phones.

Airey concedes: "The systems of engagement have changed. The mainframe has to be able to interact and handle the vast numbers of people engaging with it from mobile phones and other devices."

But he sees the mainframe remaining important in business if it can be linked with technologies that make it easier to manage new ‘systems of engagement’.

"The platforms have proven they can scale to meet demand," he says. "Being able to move into the Java space, the Linux space, and bring that technology into a proprietary technology stack to open it up to new architectures [is the future]."

It will continue to spur innovation in other technologies

Finally, the mainframe’s relevance will be ensured by the fact that it’s been used to birth plenty of new, useful innovations.

CA Technologies’ EMEA mainframe principal, Marcel den Hartog, tells CBR: "Its huge resource management capabilities have helped incubate new technologies like virtualisation, resource management, high levels of security, and huge scalability. These have then cascaded down to wider industry trends like cloud, big data, mobility and the internet of things, all of which we’re seeing grow in popularity today.

"IT’s ‘workhorse’ is stronger, more advanced, and more relied-upon than ever."

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