History and Applications of Mainframe Computers

Mainframes are serving many large-scale businesses across the globe by performing mission-critical and complex tasks. Many companies in various industries, including banking, insurance, healthcare, telecom, and others, rely on mainframes for their day-to-day operations. They rely on mainframes because they are secure and efficient systems that can process huge volumes of data.

Constantly gaining computational strength over the years, mainframes have been silently powering some of the biggest companies in the world. In this article, we try to throw some light on the evolution of mainframes and places where they are used.

The first generation mainframes
The existence of mainframe computers can be traced back to early 1950s. First-generation mainframes include the IBM 705, introduced in 1954, and the IBM 1401, introduced in 1959. Those models were based on vacuum tubes, required vast amounts of floor space, and were very expensive.

Though the performance of those first-generation mainframes was not that great compared to today’s machines, they were some of the most powerful machines of that period for those business environments. Just like today’s computers, they were used as central data repositories in data processing centers of large corporations.

The S/360
The IBM S/360 (an abbreviation of “System/360”), was introduced in 1964. Unlike the earlier versions, the revolutionary S/360 could perform both types of computing – commercial as well as scientific. As the name suggests, its architecture supported a wide (360-degree) range of applications.

S/360 was the first-ever computing machine to use microcoding to implement machine instructions. It allowed customers to write business applications without specialized hardware or software, and it enabled easy upgrade to newer processors without raising many compatibility issues. On the whole, the evolution of the S/360 can be treated as a turning point in mainframe history.

Mainframes in 1990 – T-Rex by IBM
The emergence of the client-server model of computing in early 1990s challenged the dominance of mainframes. Industry experts predicted the end of mainframe computer and started calling it a “dinosaur”. This led IBM to develop a new version of mainframe to meet the new demand and new requirements. As a reactionary step, they named the machines “T-Rex”.

T-Rex was empowered with expanded functions and improved data processing capabilities. Some of its new processing capabilities included web-serving, disaster recovery, autonomics, and grid computing. With this new evolution, mainframes once again led the IT industry. Besides playing a central role in IT, mainframes became primary hubs in the largest distributed networks.

Current generation mainframe systems
The current generation of mainframe systems, in use since about 2000, are more capable than their earlier counterparts. Called “z-series” mainframes, the latest versions are the z196 and the zEC12. They are relatively small in size and can process diverse workloads in one secure footprint.

When implemented as a primary server in the distributed server farms of a corporation, a mainframe computer can effectively serve tens of thousands of end users, manage petabytes of data, and reconfigure both software and hardware resources to accommodate changes in the workload.

Applications of mainframes in various fields
Mainframes find numerous applications in science, engineering, and many other fields.

•Banking and finance benefit greatly from mainframes. Typical mainframe applications in this sector are for ATM transactions and credit card purchases—thousands of transactions from multiple locations are processed at a time.

•Insurance companies use mainframes to store the data of claims, client financial information, and other relevant information. They may process millions of policies.

•Businesses in health care sector use mainframes on a large scale to store and manage information regarding patients, clinical research, drug storage, lab reports, etc.

•Mainframes work as data warehouses for government. Given the complexity, size, and diversity of the data involved, mainframes make handling it surprisingly easy and reliable.

Mainframes, thus, have evolved into powerful computing devices over years and are playing a crucial role in business operations across various industries.