Revenge of the Dinosaurs

The mainframe's resilience in the marketplace.

An Enterprise Systems columnist recently mentioned to me that in mid-June, largely unnoticed by the press, we passed the 50th anniversary of the Univac, generally regarded as the first commercial computer—and the grand poobah of today’s technology-drenched culture.

Unisys, the modern derivation of the company that produced the Univac, announced the anniversary, along with a rather vague apology for all that computers have wrought in the years since June 14, 1951, when the Univac passed its final tests and was delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The behemoth computer cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to build and weighed eight tons, in part because it was powered by vacuum tubes instead of microprocessors. It crunched numbers for the Census Bureau and helped Walter Cronkite call the 1952 presidential election correctly (Eisenhower over Stevenson in a landslide), among other things.

According to Cronkite, in an interview with Computerworld several years ago, "The whole idea [of using the Univac for election calculations] was fascinating but slightly appalling. We thought of it more as a gimmick than a tool that would become essential to our coverage. We went to Philadelphia, and here was this computer the size of a living room, and I found it fascinating and mystifying and over my head, but very interesting, of course."

Fifty years is hardly a blip in history, yet seemingly forever in computer time. What’s amazing is the dips and turns that large systems have gone through in that time—culminating in today’s resurgence of the mainframe.

What I think we’re seeing, actually, is simply the mainframe’s resilience in the marketplace, and I suspect that many long-time ES readers would agree. Take IBM. With 2000 revenues of $88 billion, IBM is the 800-pound gorilla in today’s tech market.

While we’ve watched flashy new companies implode over the last six months and the tech sector collapse on itself, IBM reported first-quarter profits of $1.75 billion. According to Fortune magazine, computer makers overall lost 38 percent in net income in the first quarter; IBM gained 15.2 percent. And IBM is back at the vanguard with strong moves into e-business (a term it coined) and Web services, among other things—not to mention a surprising embrace of open source, a canny move on the part of a huge company that has made plenty of similarly smart moves over the years.

If you’re a technology manager with mainframe expertise in charge of e-business projects within your company, perhaps you’ve been just as resilient—and as canny. According to recent research by analyst firm Xephon, IBM mainframes now loom big in future e-business plans. "The S/390 may have missed out on the first wave of frenetic and chaotic e-business implementations," according to Xephon analyst Mark Lillycrop, "but many enterprises now see it as the best platform for managing their new breed of mission-critical applications."

Which leads me to some questions for you. Do you think it’s a mainframe resurgence, or is it just endurance—below the radar of typical computer press coverage? What role do legacy systems continue to play in your job description? Where do you get the information you need to stay current on enterprise technology, and what can ES do to help? What issues and technologies can we cover to help you, as enterprise managers, do your job better? Send me an e-mail at LBriggs@esj.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is the founding editor of MCP Magazine and the former senior editorial director of 101communications. In between world travels, she's a freelance technology writer based in San Diego, Calif.