Mainframes (often colloquially referred to as Big Iron) are computers used mainly by large organizations for critical applications, typically bulk data processing such as census, industry and consumer statistics, ERP, and financial transaction processing.
The term probably originated from the early mainframes, as they were housed in enormous, room-sized metal boxes or frames. Later the term was used to distinguish high-end commercial machines from less powerful units.
Today in practice, the term usually refers to computers compatible with the IBM System/360 line, first introduced in 1965. (IBM System z10 is the latest incarnation.) Otherwise, large systems that are not based on the System/360 are referred to as either "servers" or "supercomputers". However, "server", "supercomputer" and "mainframe" are not synonymous (see client-server).
Some non-System/360-compatible systems derived from or compatible with older (pre-Web) server technology may also be considered mainframes. These include the Burroughs large systems, the UNIVAC 1100/2200 series systems, and the pre-System/360 IBM 700/7000 series. Most large-scale computer system architectures were firmly established in the 1960s and most large computers were based on architecture established during that era up until the advent of Web servers in the 1990s. (Interestingly, the first Web server running anywhere outside Switzerland ran on an IBM mainframe at Stanford University as early as 1990. See History of the World Wide Web for details.)
There were several minicomputer operating systems and architectures that arose in the 1970s and 1980s, but minicomputers are generally not considered mainframes. (UNIX arose as a minicomputer operating system; Unix has scaled up over the years to acquire some mainframe characteristics.)
Many defining characteristics of "mainframe" were established in the 1960s, but those characteristics continue to expand and evolve to the present day.
Modern mainframe computers have abilities not so much defined by their single task computational speed (usually defined as MIPS — Millions of Instructions Per Second) as by their redundant internal engineering and resulting high reliability and security, extensive input-output facilities, strict backward compatibility with older software, and high utilization rates to support massive throughput. These machines often run for years without interruption, with repairs and hardware upgrades taking place during normal operation.
Software upgrades are only non-disruptive when Parallel Sysplex is in place, with true workload sharing, so one system can take over another's application, while it is being refreshed. More recently, there are several IBM mainframe installations that have delivered over a decade of continuous business service as of 2007, with hardware upgrades not interrupting service. Mainframes are defined by high availability, one of the main reasons for their longevity, because they are typically used in applications where downtime would be costly or catastrophic. The term Reliability, Availability and Serviceability (RAS) is a defining characteristic of mainframe computers. Proper planning (and implementation) is required to exploit these features.
In the 1960s, most mainframes had no interactive interface. They accepted sets of punch cards, paper tape, and/or magnetic tape and operated solely in batch mode to support back office functions, such as customer billing. Teletype devices were also common, at least for system operators. By the early 1970s, many mainframes acquired interactive user interfaces and operated as timesharing computers, supporting hundreds or thousands of users simultaneously along with batch processing. Users gained access through specialized terminals or, later, from personal computers equipped with terminal emulation software. Many mainframes supported graphical terminals (and terminal emulation) by the 1980s (if not earlier). Nowadays most mainframes have partially or entirely phased out classic terminal access for end-users in favor of Web user interfaces. Developers and operational staff typically continue to use terminals or terminal emulators.
Historically mainframes acquired their name in part because of their substantial size and requirements for specialized heating, ventilating, air conditioning (HVAC), and electrical power. Those requirements ended by the mid-1990s with CMOS mainframe designs replacing the older bipolar technology. In a major reversal, IBM now touts its newer mainframes' ability to reduce data center energy costs for power and cooling and reduced physical space requirements compared to server farms.
Mainframes can add or hot swap system capacity non disruptively and granularly. Modern mainframes, notably the IBM zSeries, System z9 and System z10 servers, offer three levels of virtualization: logical partitions (LPARs, via the PR/SM facility), virtual machines (via the z/VM operating system), and through its operating systems (notably z/OS with its key-protected address spaces and sophisticated goal-oriented workload scheduling, but also Linux, OpenSolaris (being ported) and Java). This virtualization is so thorough, so well established, and so reliable that most IBM mainframe customers run no more than two machines: one in their primary data center, and one in their backup data center—fully active, partially active, or on standby—in case there is a catastrophe affecting the first building. All test, development, training, and production workload for all applications and all databases can run on a single machine, except for extremely large demands where the capacity of one machine might be limiting. Such a two mainframe installation can support continuous business service, avoiding both planned and unplanned outages.
Mainframes are designed to handle very high volume input and output (I/O) and emphasize throughput computing. Since the mid-1960s, mainframe designs have included several subsidiary computers (called channels or peripheral processors) which manage the I/O devices, leaving the CPU free to deal only with high-speed memory. It is common in mainframe shops to deal with massive databases and files. Giga-record or tera-record files are not unusual. Compared to a typical PC, mainframes commonly have hundreds to thousands of times as much data storage online, and can access it much faster. Mainframe return on investment (ROI), like any other computing platform, is dependent on its ability to scale, support mixed workloads, reduce labor costs, deliver uninterrupted service for critical business applications, and several other risk-adjusted cost factors. Some argue that the modern mainframe is not cost-effective. Hewlett-Packard and Dell unsurprisingly take that view at least at times, and so do some independent analysts. Sun Microsystems also takes that view, but beginning in 2007 promoted a partnership with IBM which largely focused on IBM support for Solaris on its System x and BladeCenter products, but also included positive comments for the company's OpenSolaris operating system being ported to IBM mainframes. The general consensus (held by Gartner and other independent analysts) is that the modern mainframe often has unique value and superior cost-effectiveness, especially for large scale enterprise computing. In fact, Hewlett-Packard also continues to manufacture its own mainframe (arguably), the NonStop system originally created by Tandem. Logical partitioning is now found in many UNIX-based servers, and many vendors are promoting virtualization technologies, in many ways validating the mainframe's design accomplishments while blurring the differences between the different approaches to enterprise computing.
Mainframes also have execution integrity characteristics for fault tolerant computing. z900 and z990 and System z9 and z10 servers execute each instruction twice, compare results, and shift workloads "in flight" to functioning processors, including spares, without any impact to applications or users. This feature, also found in HP's NonStop systems, is known as lock-stepping, because both processors take their "steps" (i.e. instructions) together. Not all applications absolutely need the assured integrity that these systems provide, but many do, such as financial transaction processing.
However, the mainframe has its disadvantage. In particular, it is most likely remote and centralized. That may not be a problem as some business has to be done centralized, e.g. accounting, stock transaction, etc. However, there are a lot of business processes that benefit from decentralized management. Also, the high costs to maintain in an absolute scale or, to put it nicer, the need of a critical mass to invest on a mainframe platform sometimes "force" processes that are relatively independent to compromise and sit in one large box under the centralized IT management. Even though one may argue certain cost saving on average, the flexibility, the user ownership, the difficulty to compromise the maintenance window, the hardship to deal with diverse clients, and also delegating IT management to a different team makes mainframe concept unpopular. A lot of IT revolution is away from the "bureau approach" implicit to mainframe solution. Instead, one opts for a more personal (PC), or departmental (mid-range), data processing. Mainframe's virtualization technology of running hundreds of OSes (like Linux) on one mainframe did not directly address these issues inherent to centralization. Instead, a lot of the mainframe's features, like multiprocessing, disk array controllers, I/O multipathing, graphics controllers, virtualization, are downscaled to less expensive platforms, rather than lower platform's technologies upscale to mainframe.
Despite these issues, the mainframe is still a viable general purpose business computer in terms of its support for a wide variety of popular operating systems, middleware, and applications suitable for certain type of organization, culture and business processes.
IBM mainframes dominate the mainframe market at well over 90% market share. Unisys manufactures ClearPath mainframes, based on earlier Sperry and Burroughs product lines. Hitachi co-developed the zSeries z800 with IBM to share expenses. Hewlett-Packard sells its unique NonStop systems, which it acquired with Tandem Computers. Groupe Bull's DPS, Fujitsu-Siemens BS2000, and Fujitsu-ICL VME mainframes are still available in Europe. Fujitsu, Hitachi, and NEC (the "JCMs") still maintain nominal mainframe hardware businesses in their home Japanese market.
The amount of vendor investment in mainframe development varies with market share. Unisys, HP, Groupe Bull, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and NEC now rely primarily on commodity Intel CPUs rather than custom processors in order to reduce development expenses, and they have also cut back their mainframe software development. In contrast, IBM has its own large research and development organization designing new, homegrown CPUs, including mainframe processors, and IBM is rapidly expanding its software business, including its mainframe software portfolio, to seek additional profits.
Platform Solutions Inc., which was spun off former plug compatible mainframe vendor Amdahl Corp. in January 1999, markets Itanium-based servers compatible with IBM System z. PSI and IBM are engaged in a series of lawsuits. IBM alleges that PSI violated its patents and refuses to license its software on PSI systems, while PSI alleges that IBM is violating anti-trust laws. In October of 2007, PSI has additionally filed a complaint with the EU concerning IBM anti-competitive behavior in the European mainframe market. In July 2008 IBM acquired PSI and both companies dropped their lawsuits against each other. The European Union, however, has not stated it has dropped its investigation.
Shrinking demand and tough competition caused a shakeout in the market in the early 1980s — RCA sold out to UNIVAC and GE also left; Honeywell was bought out by Bull; UNIVAC became a division of Sperry, which later merged with Burroughs to form Unisys Corporation in 1986. In 1991, AT&T briefly owned NCR. During the same period, companies found that servers based on microcomputer designs could be deployed at a fraction of the acquisition price and offer local users much greater control over their own systems given the IT policies and practices at that time. Terminals used for interacting with mainframe systems were gradually replaced by personal computers. Consequently, demand plummeted and new mainframe installations were restricted mainly to financial services and government. In the early 1990s, there was a consensus among industry analysts that the mainframe was a dying market as mainframe platforms were increasingly replaced by personal computer networks.
That trend started to turn around in the late 1990s as corporations found new uses for their existing mainframes and as the price of data networking collapsed in most parts of the world. The growth of e-business also dramatically increased the number of back-end transactions processed by mainframe software as well as the size and throughput of databases. Another factor currently increasing mainframe use is the development of the Linux operating system, which can run on many mainframe systems, typically in virtual machines. Linux allows users to take advantage of open source software combined with mainframe hardware RAS. Rapid expansion and development in emerging markets, particularly China, is also spurring major mainframe investments to solve exceptionally difficult computing problems, e.g. providing unified, extremely high volume online transaction processing databases for 1 billion consumers across multiple industries (banking, insurance, credit reporting, government services, etc.)
There has been some blurring of the term "mainframe," with some PC and server vendors referring to their systems as "mainframes" or "mainframe-like." This is not widely accepted and the market generally recognizes that mainframes are genuinely and demonstrably different.
The MIPS measurement has long been known to be misleading and has often been parodied as "Meaningless Indicator of Processor Speed." The complex CPU architectures of modern mainframes have reduced the relevance of MIPS ratings to the actual number of instructions executed. Likewise, the modern "balanced performance" system designs focus both on CPU power and on I/O capacity, and virtualization capabilities make comparative measurements even more difficult. See benchmark (computing) for a brief discussion of the difficulties in benchmarking such systems. IBM has long published a set of LSPR (Large System Performance Reference) ratio tables for mainframes that take into account different types of workloads and are a more representative measurement of several categories of mainframe workloads. However, these comparisons are not available for non-IBM systems and cannot be directly used for cross-platform comparisons. It takes a fair amount of work (and maybe guesswork) for users to determine what type of workload they have and then apply only the LSPR values most relevant to them. Also, IBM does not measure all workloads on all possible configurations, so some estimates are inaccurate. Current processors can have up to 64 CPU's, but LSPR has not measured any over 32 for a single OS instance, instead partitioning the box into multiple z/OS instances in LSPR tables with 56 and 64-CPU systems.
To give some idea of real world experience, a single mainframe may execute the equivalent of 1, 5, 50, 100, or even more distributed processors' worth of business activity, however this is highly dependent on the workload. Merely counting processors to compare server platforms is extremely perilous.