Mainframe Computers Quietly Disappear

A decade ago, when the computer industry was still dominated by big old mainframe computers, industry analysts were already starting to predict the decline and disappearance of the mainframes. Desktop computers were catching up with mainframes in processing power and storage capacity, and at prices a tiny fraction of mainframe prices, they would replace mainframes for all but the most demanding applications. Sure enough, most of the manufacturers of mainframes fell away over the next few years, leaving only the market leader, IBM. IBM’s mainframe sales volume fell every year and no longer accounts for a significant fraction of that company’s revenue. The number of mainframes in use has fallen by about half. And this year, years earlier than most industry observers had expected, mainframes are quietly disappearing.

The transition is going largely unnoticed because most computer users never see a mainframe computer — they tend to be hidden away in secure rooms in the back of secure data centers. And so, as far as most users can tell, the replacement of the old mainframe is just another upgrade, offering more processing power and storage capacity, but with no other changes worth noting.

But the truth is, this year’s new “mainframe” systems are not mainframes at all in the traditional sense. They are more like mainframe-compatible servers — essentially, souped-up microcomputers that act like mainframes. IBM doesn’t even call them mainframes; officially, they are “enterprise servers.” They don’t look like mainframes. They contain none of the “big iron” — the ceiling-high heavy steel racks, or main frames — that traditionally defined the difference between mainframes and other classes of computers. Actually, they look pretty much like any other computer. They aren’t priced like mainframes. They still cost more than other servers, but nothing like the extraordinary high prices of the mainframes of a few years ago.

When pressed, the new “mainframes” even show a high degree of Unix compatibility, allowing them to work together with the rest of the computer world. For years, incompatibility was one of the most notable and inconvenient qualities of mainframes — but not anymore.

When you ask one of these new enterprise servers to do mainframe-like tasks, it does them just the way a mainframe would — so much so that it could take a few more years before people notice that their old mainframes have given way to virtual mainframes. In the meantime, most of the real mainframes are on the way to the dumpster or are already gone.

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