The usual “digital dark age” stories we see are the ones where people lose data because a platform obsolesces. Business Week is running an interesting story about a computer platform that has refused to obsolesce, and it is the people who are leaving it behind – The Mainframe. It turns out that there are still over 10,000 Mainframe computers out there churning away at major companies – representing a $3.4 billion dollar market segment. Who knew right?
One part of the story that is poorly addressed is why these companies have not ported the functionality they are getting out of these mainframes to a more modern computer system. Wikipedia answers that question this way:
Modern mainframe computers have abilities not so much defined by their single task computational speed (usually defined as MIPS — Millions of Instructions Per Second) as by their redundant internal engineering and resulting high reliability and security, extensive input-output facilities, strict backward compatibility with older software, and high utilization rates to support massive throughput. These machines often run for years without interruption, with repairs and hardware upgrades taking place during normal operation.
…[IBM’s modern] mainframe processors such as 2008’s 4.4 GHz quad-core z10 mainframe microprocessor. IBM is rapidly expanding its software business, including its mainframe software portfolio…
So I guess we still need mainframes and they have been modernized somewhat, but it seems to me this would be better handled by cloud or cluster computing that would be more hardware and software agnostic. My bet is that most of these systems are actually emulating other emulations several layers deep – in some cases all the way back to punch card programming. I assume no one actually wants to unravel that spaghetti out of fear of losing some critical legacy functionality. I welcome comments here from anyone who actually uses mainframes (and if that story is to be believed, your skill set is in high demand, congrats!)