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What’s a mainframe?

I haven’t indulged in much technobabble here recently, so I guess today is as good a time as any for a good geek rant, since I scored another casualty in my long-running personal crusade to banish meaningless buzzwords from the vocabulary of morons. People who work with me have learned to humor me, with some occasional eye-rolling when they slip up and I attack them. Marketing sleazoids usually don’t fare so well, as one hapless Computer Associates wench learned today.

My biggest personal peeve is the word “mainframe”. It seems innocent enough, but do you know what it means? If you don’t, you’d better not use it around me. People are constantly throwing the word around, frequently in a negative connotation (mainframes are obsolete, unfriendly, expensive, etc.), but when challenged, few people can tell me what a mainframe is. If you don’t know what it is, how can it be all those bad things?

To the best of my knowledge, the word “mainframe” originated in the telephone industry, and referred to the huge frame full of switching gear that replaced the friendly operator who always knew where to find the person you were calling. (And now I’ll digress just long enough to refer you to an amusing story about operator vs. machine). The term moved into the data processing world when corporations started depending on huge computers, and for a while it referred to any large centralized data processing behemoth. But over time, the term apparently became more selective, and now only seems to apply only to certain computers. But I can’t get anybody to tell me exactly which ones are mainframes, or why some are and some aren’t.

I work in a building full of computers of all sizes and shapes. One of them, which I am partially responsible for, is an IBM Multiprise 3000. A lot of people would call this machine a mainframe. In fact, many people at work call it “the mainframe” (but not around me), because they think it’s the only computer among all the others surrounding it that’s worthy of that title.

It’s actually dwarfed by many other larger, more powerful, and more expensive computers. There is an HP Superdome and several massive Linux clusters from both IBM and HP. There are AIX boxes of fairly impressive size, including a couple of new, expensive, powerful 16-way P570s. But, according to people who like to use the m-word, those aren’t mainframes. Only that pair of little boxes over in the corner is a mainframe. But why? When I ask for a specific definition of “mainframe” that includes that one specific machine and not the others, I usually can’t get an answer. So if you don’t know what a mainframe is, how can you say this one is and that one isn’t?

According to brain-dead management, in a few years, we won’t have a mainframe at all. If their boondoggle actually survives (and that’s a pretty big IF), we’ll have a few racks full of expensive equipment providing the functions now being provided much more reliably and efficiently by the much smaller “mainframe”. But these new ones won’t be mainframes. Why not? Well … because mainframes are dead, everybody knows that.

So back to today’s battle. My phone rang, I answered, and a very pleasant-sounding lady asked if I was Matt. I confessed, and she introduced herself and asked if I was responsible for the mainframe software. If she hadn’t been working for Computer Associates, I almost would have felt sorry for her, but I still wouldn’t have cut her any slack.

I told her I wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know what a mainframe was. I wasn’t even sure we had one. I kept hearing people use that word, but nobody could tell me what it meant. She responded that I must be very young!!! But she didn’t volunteer to enlighten me. She just told me that she knew we must have a mainframe, because we had some of their mainframe software. Aha!!! I said that if she knew we had one, she must know what one was, so could she please tell me? At that point, she asked if I was Matt Simpson, apparently thinking maybe she’d somehow gotten the wrong Matt. I confessed, and she insisted that my name was on her records as being responsible for our mainframe software. I insisted that if she could explain what she was talking about, maybe I could help her. She said she had a couple of other names on her list, and maybe she should call one of them. I wished her luck.

She’s not the first clueless marketing weasel that’s had this battle with me. They call and ask if we have a mainframe, but when I ask, they don’t know what a mainframe is. Fer cryin’ out loud folks, how the hell do you expect to sell stuff when you don’t even know what kind of machine you’re selling it for?

Of all the times I’ve asked this question, I think I’ve gotten one reasonable response. A salesman asked if we had a mainframe, I asked what one was, and he said “any machine that runs OS/390”. That’s an answer I could accept. There’s actually room for argument, because I’ve seen OS/390 running on a laptop with a couple of layers of emulation. Did that make it a mainframe? And IBM likes to tout “Linux on the mainframe”, which would imply that some machines are mainframes even if they’re not running OS/390, although some other huge Linux machines are not mainframes. But at least when this guy said “mainframe”, he knew what he was talking about and was prepared to give a reasonable description. He knew he was selling software for the OS/390 environment, unlike some of the other “mainframe” software vendors who don’t seem to know what they’re selling. I could confirm that yes, indeed, we did have a machine that runs OS/390, but unfortunately, everybody thinks it’s going away and we had zero interest in buying anything from him. But at least the call ended cordially, without each of us thinking the other was a real nutcase.

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