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Modern mainframes have less in common with their legacy ancestors than iPhones have with the rotary phones that preceded them. So why does the perception still exist that mainframes are outdated?

Mainframe 1970s

There are several generational differences between modern mainframes and the mainframes introduced in the 1960s. And even though the mainframe itself is now more than 50 years old, there is nothing old or dated about the ones being sold and installed today. At this point, the technological foundation may be old by computing standards, but the breakthroughs that come with each new mainframe generation show how they are still adaptive and the technology ever green. When compared to older mainframes, the mainframes of today are:

Different in development cycles

Mainframes are on a slower development cycle than most consumer electronics. IBM releases new models of mainframes on average every three to five years. Compared to most consumer electronics that release new models yearly or biannually, that seems like a long time. But mainframes have been releasing these incremental improvements for so much longer, and the improvements between generations are so much more substantial that the compound development in the technology is much more powerful.

Different in perspective

It is strange that mainframes are singled out as a dated technology, while other technologies that we use every day have been around even longer. TVs, phones, cars, and planes all proceeded the mainframe by many years. The first commercial flight was in 1914. The first phone call was 1876. The first TV broadcast in the US was in 1928. The car was invented in 1886. All of these legacy technologies are still in daily use, and no one is suggesting we stop using these technologies because they are so old.

None of these technologies look the same as their early incarnations. Mainframes took a similar course. The mainframes in use today are substantially different from the mainframes of the 1960s. In many ways, the mainframes of today are more different from the mainframes of the 1960s than the TVs, cars, planes of that decade.

Many commercial aircraft in use today still have ash trays even though smoking on flights has been illegal since 1998. New mainframes, although they maintain their ability to run applications developed decades earlier, have not held on to as much of their historic baggage. Technologies like cars, planes, and mainframes have such longevity because there are no replacements ready. There’s no better way to travel from New York to San Francisco than a plane, and there is no better way to handle the heavy computing needs of a large organization than with a mainframe.

Different in performance

Modern mainframes are much faster and more reliable than their predecessors. They also have more capacity and use energy more efficiently. It is difficult to compare fairly the performance capabilities of the mainframes of today with the ones from the 1960s. It’s hardly fair to compare them with the models delivered a few years ago. Cars and planes today travel faster than the ones of the 1960s, but they don’t travel thousands of times faster.

Different in application

Since the early 2000s, mainframes have been able to run modern applications, including those developed for Linux and Java. Graphical user interfaces have also become a more common way in which users interact with mainframes. The green screens are still around, but many applications can even be run from a smartphone.

Each new model has more of everything that makes the mainframe the technological backbone of large businesses and organizations: more speed, more capacity, more security, more reliability. These incremental improvements and technological breakthroughs have made each generation substantially more powerful than the previous models. Therefore, even though mainframes have been in use for decades, there’s nothing old about them.

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