If you think of technology as a kind of living organism, then it won’t surprise you to think of it developing, persisting, mutating, stagnating and finally declining. It’s a metaphor that you can apply to pretty much any technology you can think of.
Makers of stagecoaches thought they’d always be in business until cheap cars came along. And it can be interesting to think whereabouts on that model various technologies might be. Electric cars, for example, are probably at the developing stage. You might guess that tablets and smartphones are at the persisting stage. So, where are mainframes?
The other thing to think about disruptive technology is, according to Milan Zeleny in 2009
that it disrupts the support network of the technology. Going back to the introduction of cheap cars, we find the support network of livery stables in every town being disrupted. With electric cars, you might suggest it’s the support network of gas stations that are disrupted. So, which part of mainframe technology has been disrupted?
You might argue that PCs were disruptive because they changed the way people did computing—i.e., you were no longer tied to a green screen attached to a mainframe to get any work done. And you might argue that PCs were disruptive because they provided a way for people to do a different kind of computing—users weren’t feeding in data and reading off results, they were creating colorful graphics, they were word processing, they were able to give presentations. Or you might argue that they weren’t that disruptive a technology because mainframes continued.
If you think about your own computing experience, perhaps the biggest change has come about because of Wi-Fi. You can connect to the Internet and use social media to your heart’s content while still watching TV or holding a conversation. You can check your email, see what tomorrow’s weather will be and answer obscure questions after a quick Google search. But through all this, CICS and IMS are still beavering away at your bank making sure that your bills are paid on time and businesses can continue without thinking about it.
Clearly, mainframes went through the developing stages during the 1960s. But, I guess the question is whether they are persisting or mutating—because clearly they aren’t stagnating and they aren’t declining.
The first data center that I worked at had a large processor with all sorts of lights on the outside of it. There were tape drives and a quite big footprint DASD. Whereas, nowadays, we see the processor is a much smaller box, and the DASD store far more data in a much smaller space. Is that natural developments in the persisting stage, or is that a mutation?
Perhaps the biggest difference is the fact that I can now interact with mainframe data from the browser on my tablet. My early experience of using mainframes involved punch cards or having to sit down at a green screen terminal that was near to and connected to the mainframe. Not the most flexible of working environments.
Or perhaps the cloud will see a major mutation in mainframe computing? We’ll be less likely to see the boxes that make up the mainframe because we will just access it from some other device using the network. There will be people who care about the processing speed and the cost—and whether specialty processors can reduce costs or whether data could be stored more cheaply on other platforms. And there will be people concerned about security—ensuring data is backed up, and ensuring only authorized programs and people can access the data.
But for most users, we won’t know what hardware we’re working on. Or maybe that’s the case already. If your IT department is in a different country and time zone, you can’t picture it, even though it is a real company asset.
But whatever the disruptive technologies, whatever the changes to support networks, mainframes have an amazing staying power and will be with us, persisting and mutating for the foreseeable future.
Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd, an IT consultancy. A popular speaker and blogger, he currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups. He’s editorial director for the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook, and for many years edited Xephon’s Update publications.