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Bob's Mainframe Computer Site

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Twists and Turns Along the Information Highway

I consider myself fortunate to be a part of the computer industry during it's "golden age", the period between 1960 and 1975 in which the mainframe computer ruled supreme and the international computer industry reached maturity.

It was an exciting time with the rapid introduction of ever more sophisticated hardware and software products that truly revolutionized information technology. Examples of such progress were the development of families of upward compatible computer systems and the advent of highly sophisticated computer operating systems software.

Until the early 1960's, almost all computer models were designed independently for a particular customer. This meant there was no true upward compatibility that allowed users to easily transition to larger, faster, and more sophisticated machines.

So when I entered the industry in 1961 as a federal government  programmer, the concept of a computer "operating system" had a different meaning than it does today which is: a complex software system mediating all interactions between users, application programs, and computer hardware.

Instead, back then, the term "operating system" meant a collection of computer programs, including  assemblers compilers, debugging tools, standard routines for input and output, buffers to "spool" printer and tape output, and utilities designed to load a sequence (or "batch") of programs serially into memory.

But later these stand-alone utilities began to play an increasingly important part in the bundles of hardware, software, and services supplied by computer manufacturers. So, by the time I joined General Electric in 1966, GE and other computer manufacturers were greatly expanding the concept of operating system software.

Now computer operating systems began to incorporate most of the functions we recognize today, including the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time on a single machine. Before then, users had to schedule specific tasks such as payroll and inventory to be processed serially one at a time. Thus, the introduction of  multidimentionional operating systems featuring such advances as computer multitasking and  multiprocessing made computers increasingly easier to use, more efficient, and more productive.

Following the "golden age" and on into the 1980s, more companies embraced new systems and new approaches to information processing. Smaller computers were now connected to servers interfaced to networked PCs instead of "big boxes" crunching numbers in the back room. This "new guard" was led by new companies such as Apple and Sun and run by young entrepreneurs wearing sneakers, faded jeans, and long hair. White dress shirts, neckties, black pinstripe suits, and black shoes with dark socks were no longer the required "uniform of the day".

Now companies found that servers based on microcomputer designs could be deployed at a fraction of mainframe acquisition costs, yet offer local users much greater control over their own systems So dumb terminals previously tied to mainframe systems were gradually replaced by personal computers. As all this was happening, demand for mainframes hit bottom as installations were restricted mainly to financial services and government. Industry analysts began to view mainframes as technological "dinosaurs" slated for extinction as they were increasingly replaced by personal computer networks.

What many mainframe critics failed to realize is what Doug Balog, a retired IBM vice president, recently noted. He pointed out that 70 percent of the world's data are still housed in mainframe computers.  And he predicts that mainframes will continue to be used for a long time, simply because information technology (IT) based on servers and PCs often requires more staff and are more expensive to operate than centralized systems,

Also, a new corporate cost cutting era began in the 1990s helping to fuel a revival of the mainframe market as corporations found new uses for their mainframes. Tried and true, extremely fast and efficient back office mainframes such as Nasdaq's Unisys 2200/900 Computer offered web server performance similar to that of hundreds of smaller machines, but with lower power and lower cost per user. The growth of E-Business also increased the number of back end transactions running on mainframe software capable of handling huge databases

Consequently, starting about 2004, a mainframe revival was well underway giving IBM and other mainframe manufacturers healthy revenue increases that harbingers a bright continuing future.  So, in spite of all the predictions, the dinosaurs refuse to die.