The Mainframe Liveth
September 16, 2020

Terry Critchley
Author of "Making It in IT"

There is a story that must be told since it uncovers an injustice visited upon a piece of information technology (IT) equipment called a mainframe computer. These, like many such situations displaying bigotry and ignorance, are put forward by people who do not understand the butt of their criticism.

Read Dr. Terry Crtichley's full paper on the Mainframe

There is a word for this type of person's traits: "Ultracrepidarianism is the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters which one knows nothing about." The word first appeared as an insult in an 1819 letter by essayist William Hazlitt. [from Howtogeek].

I decided that, since few outside IBM will would take up swords on the mainframe's behalf, I would do it to the best of my ability. I did spend nearly a quarter of a century with IBM, much of it with customers who had mainframes. I should say at this juncture that I have no connections with IBM except those of a normal retiree.

Mainframe Memories

I remember much of the post-/360 era with nostalgia, not just for the technology but for the team spirit and humor.

1. I remember going into customer site one day and hearing a fairground-like rendition of "She'll be coming round the mountains ..." Odd, I thought and odder it seemed when I found the sound was being generated by the computer's printer, driven by a special program written by the IBM engineers. I have since been told of other musical computer machines, even calculators.

2. I configured the microcode for a dual printer setup for a public utility one year and rang in to ask how they were performing. They told me they were functioning but printing alternate lines of a utility bill on a different printer!

3. In short, the mainframe ecosphere is a career, not just a job; Java coding is.

Anatomy of the Mainframe

What follows are a number of myth-busting facts about the mainframe ecosphere, culled from various sources too numerous to list here. If threatened with jail in the Tower of London, I can retrace my research steps and reproduce them.

■ They are old, along with their software and peripherals and are deemed legacy or heritage, along with the pyramids and Stonehenge

■ They only support old, dumb terminals for access to systems

■ They are totally inflexible and cocooned from modern technology

■ They are cloud unfriendly, a bad trait today

■ They are expensive to purchase run, slow to develop on, lack development agility and, in a word, use "old hat" technology

■ Their use in the workplace is dwindling fast and has been for years

■ They don't support Windows or Linux

■ Nobody wants to work on them

■ Mainframe jobs pay peanuts compared with modern "trendy" jobs

■ All work is moving to the cloud environment and they run anything but mainframes

■ In essence, it should be consigned to the dustbin of IT history and a model preserved in a museum somewhere, along with wax models of the old geeks who worked on them

Below, are the facts about this "electronic corpse."

Today, mainframes run on, support or have:

■ It is the most reliable and resilient piece of computer hardware on the planet, complemented by its software; Z series and LinuxONE hardware and an array of software between them are second to none in providing high availability and resilient computing

■ The above is necessary when you look at the list of major companies which rely on the mainframe for their business

■ 87% of all credit card transactions

■ 30 billion transactions per day

■ Handles nearly $8 trillion per year

■ 29 billion ATM transactions per year (95% of them)

■ 92 of the top 100 banks

■ 23 of the 25 top airlines

■ 23 out of 25 top US retailers

■ 10 of the world's top 10 insurers, 84% of Top 25 Insurance Organizations

■ 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies (355 out of 500)

■ More transactions per day than Google searches (1.3 million/second on CICS transaction processing system vs. 68,542/second on Google)

■ 55% of all enterprise transactions

■ 80% of the world's corporate data originates on them

■ 72% of firms noted their customer-facing applications are completely or very reliant on mainframe processing

■ Handle 68 % of the world's production IT workloads, yet they account for only 6 % of IT costs

■ IBM's Z series mainframe sales are up 70% year-over-year (2018 on)

Mainframe workloads are increasing; 57% to 64% mainframe usage (2017)

■ 90% of all mainframe applications will be running in 2023

■ For larger workloads, the mainframe is the most cost-effective system

■ They are used today by cloud vendors in their offerings

■ Mobile users each perform about 37 transactions daily and 91% of their apps communicate via the mainframe

■ They have the extra "muscle" -equal to 150o or more x86 systems - to handle increasing volumes of remote devices without resorting to multiple servers with their attendant costs

■ They still have an emphasis on RAS (reliability, availability, serviceability) for mission critical workloads

■ It supports Linux OS and modern programming languages such as Python, Java, JavaScript, and C++

■ The data center lives too and rumors of its demise in favor of the cloud are somewhat exaggerated. See the section Career Aspects & Prospects later on the dangers of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Many data-center workloads staying on premises, Uptime Institute finds”

■ You don't need the old, dumb 3270 screens to access it

■ The mainframe today can take part in all the "technology races" and is not simply a lonely COBOL silo, surviving on memories of the "great days"

■ Despite all this, few, if any, computer science courses even acknowledge the existence of the mainframe, let alone teach anything about it.

"Why don't you care about such a thing [mainframes]? Because you've been taught not to. Schools teach you that mainframes don't matter, if they are mentioned at all. Well guess what! Not only do they matter, everything you do, your family does, your government does, relies on them." [quotation from a mainframe article 2015]

Dr. Terry Critchley is the Author of "Making It in IT", "High Performance IT Services" and “High Availability IT Services”
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