Making the Mainframe more Relevant

Making the Mainframe more Relevant

It needs the help. Ask a typical user, they'll probably say:

What's a Mainframe, Again?

A large digital computer, typically serving 100-400 users and occupying a special air-conditioned room. Or the part of a computer (microprocessor chip) that does most of the data processing. Depending on how you interpret it.

IBM unveiled the System/360, on 7 April 1964. It was billed as the “first large family of computers to use interchangeable software and peripheral equipment” - an integrated system. The first to be compatible and upgradable. Before then, all computers were different; any System/360 would work with any other System/360.

They're not so big, these days; about the size of a large refrigerator.

Who Uses Them, Now?

80% of the world's corporate data is still managed by mainframes, which are behind much of the technology in modern society. 

Mainframe computing continues to be used in industries like banking, finance, healthcare, insurance, utilities, and government. 

SHARE, the IBM user group, notes that:

•    96 of the world’s top 100 banks, 23 of the top 25 US retailers, and nine of the world’s 10 largest insurance companies run IBM's System z mainframes.
•    71% of global Fortune 500 companies are System z clients.
•    Nine of the top 10 global life and health insurance providers process high-volume transactions on a System z mainframe.
•    Mainframes process roughly 30 billion transactions per day, including "most major credit card transactions and stock trades, money transfers, manufacturing processes, and ERP systems".

The Mainframe Advantage

Volume Handling

IBM Hursley laboratory director Rob Lamb says: “There are 6,900 tweets, 30,000 Facebook likes and 60,000 Google searches per second." The CICS (Customer Information Control System) application server, which runs on the IBM mainframe, processes 1.1 million transactions per second. That's 10bn per day.

Compatibility with Modern Systems

The mainframe supports modern programming environments based on Java and C++. More than a quarter of the processing capacity that IBM ships is used to run Linux. And the latest zEnterprise mainframe can run 100,000 virtual Linux servers.


The zEnterprise has multiple levels of redundancy, and the mainframe can be configured while it's running. Applications, or workloads, run in logical partitions - IBM's term for virtualization.


Applications developed 50 years ago can still run on the latest zEnterprise. Why you'd want to run them is another matter, but it's testimony to the inherent stability of the mainframe platform.

Old, to New

Mainframes allow legacy applications to evolve, for modern computing. The application logic remains unchanged, but the user interface may be rendered on a mobile device or Web page.

Cost Efficiency

Because it uses less power and fewer software licenses, a mainframe server is cost-efficient. This makes it a logical choice for running public cloud services. 

Modern Applications

The mainframe offers a strong system of record that can scale, and is always available. Ideal, for social, analytics and mobile applications.

Maintaining the Tradition

Enterprise Cloud System

Announced in April 2014, the IBM Enterprise Cloud System combines System z hardware, IBM storage and IBM cloud management software in a single Infrastructure-as-a-Service solution. It's an integrated cloud platform for running System z and Linux applications - essentially a mainframe in the cloud. 

MSP Utility Pricing

The “IBM MSP Utility Pricing for System z” pricing model lets users pay for service consumption, and makes mainframe technologies more financially accessible to Managed Service Providers (MSPs). The focus is on building their business, rather than worrying about the cost of infrastructure.

System z for Mobile

The IBM System z Solution for Mobile Computing is designed to help businesses rapidly integrate and deliver new mobile and cloud services, on the z/OS operating system. A new version of IBM CICS Transaction Server – designed for high-volume processing of online transactions – provides enhanced mobile and cloud support.

Providing for the Future

The mainframe has been associated with the "baby-boomer" generation, who worked on its development. IBM is looking to foster the next generation of talent.

The “IBM Academic Initiative” provides schools with the education resources needed to educate students on key enterprise computing technologies including mainframe. Over 1,000 schools are officially part of the program. IBM also makes available three free online courses, through partnerships with Syracuse University, Marist College, and the Linux Foundation.

Michelle Woolley, an IT and graduate manager at IBM Hurlsey, has recently overseen the UK part of an IBM competition called Master the Mainframe (which started in the US in 2005). The competition builds awareness of the mainframe, and enables students to gain some of the skills needed to work in a mainframe environment. These education schemes are supplemented by the System z jobs board, an initiative to match employers in need of mainframe talent with individuals looking for mainframe jobs.

What's Next?

The strongest area for mainframes is core banking. This, together with telecommunications billing and the public sector are likely to remain the key applications, for some time. 

Cloud computing is another possibility. The idea being that, if you want to offer a particular cloud service to thousands of users, you could do it with a network of thousands of PCs and small servers - or you could do it with a mainframe. Fujitsu is one of the leading companies here, with a significant UNIX business run on mainframes. IBM and Fujitsu compete on that platform with large scale servers.

Mainframes won't disappear any time soon. For many enterprises, they represent a major investment, and at the same time they're often running mission critical applications - vital, to the financial health of a company.