A mainframe computer is a very large computer capable of handling and processing very large amounts of data quickly. They are used by large institutions, such as government agencies and large corporations.
The term mainframe computer is used to distinguish very large computers used by institutions to serve multiple users from personal computers used by individuals. Mainframe computers are capable of handling and processing very large amounts of data very quickly - much more data than a typical individual needs to work with on his or her own computer.
Development of Mainframes
Mainframe computers were developed in the 1950s, have continued to evolve and are still in use today. Mainframe computers are designed to handle very high volumes of input and output and are optimized for computational speed. The speed of mainframes is expressed in 'million instructions per second' (or MIPS). Before the development of powerful personal computers, many agencies relied heavily on mainframes for most of their computing needs. For example, this photograph shows one of the computer rooms at NASA back in 1962.
NASA Mainframe 1962
Mainframes acquired their name because of their size, typically as large as a six-foot-tall closet. They also required specialized heating, ventilation and cooling, as well as a dedicated power supply. In practice, this meant a separate room had to be dedicated to house the mainframe computer systems. One of the characteristics of early mainframes is that they did not have the typical interactive interface we are used to with personal computers. Early mainframes accepted all kinds of different inputs, and later versions typically had a dedicated terminal, similar to a modern display monitor with a keyboard.
Mainframe systems can be used by a large number of users. This means that, in a large organization, individual employees can sit at their desk using a personal computer, but they can send requests to the mainframe computer for processing large amounts of data. A typical mainframe system can support hundreds of users at the same time. As for the actual hardware components inside a mainframe computer, they are similar in type to what personal computers use: motherboard, central processing unit and memory. The individual components are just a lot more powerful and a lot more expensive.
Present-Day Use of Mainframes
With the technological advances in personal computers, the need for mainframe computing has substantially reduced over the years. The computing power of a typical desktop computer today is greater than that of a mainframe system back in the 1980s. However, mainframe systems continue to be widely used for reliable transaction processing.
Consider all the transactions that a bank with 1,000 branches across the country needs to process every day. A single desktop computer wouldn't be able to handle this volume of transactions, and it also would not be very secure. So, somewhere in a room with no windows and restricted access sits a mainframe computer crunching all these transactions while creating multiple back-ups along the way for security purposes.
Now, think of different types of industries and their services: airline reservations, electronic commerce, inventory control, shipping, etc. They all need reliable and fast processing of transactions. Not all transaction processing needs to be conducted on mainframes, but it remains one of the market segments in which mainframe computing is very important.
The current mainframe market is dominated by IBM. This company pioneered the early mainframes back in the 1950s and currently holds more than 90% of market share of the mainframe market. What does a modern mainframe look like? This photograph shows a recent model IBM mainframe. The processing power of this type of system is many times that of a regular personal computer. It also costs a lot more; a high-end unit can easily cost $100,000 or more. The photograph also does not give you a good feeling for size. The model shown here is about 80 inches high and weighs more than 3,000 pounds.
IBM modern mainframe
Supercomputers and Servers
You may have heard of the term supercomputer before. A supercomputer is a computer designed for a very specific task, typically involving complex scientific calculations. It operates at the frontline of current processing capacity and is typically custom built by a specific research lab. A mainframe computer, on the other hand, is a much more standard form of computer designed to process a very large number of transactions securely. So, a mainframe is widely used for day-to-day processing of data in large organizations, but it is not considered a supercomputer.
Another related term is server. A server refers to a computer that is dedicated to providing a particular service, such as storing a database or hosting a website. The term 'server' is related to how a computer is being used and is not limited to a single type of hardware system. Many smaller servers are actually slightly modified personal computers; however, a mainframe can be used as a very large server. So, the term 'mainframe' is related to the size of the computer (both in terms of physical size and processing power). Many large servers do consist of mainframe computers, but mainframes are used for many other purposes as well.
A mainframe is a large computer system designed to process very large amounts of data quickly. Mainframe systems are widely used in industries like the financial sector, airline reservations, logistics and other fields where a large number of transactions need to be processed as part of routine business practices.
||a large computer system designed to process very large amounts of data quickly
||parts contained inside a mainframe computer similar: motherboard, central processing unit and memory
||mainframe is able to calculate multiple processes all at the same time with great speed
||a computer designed for a very specific task, typically involving complex scientific calculations
||a computer that is dedicated to providing a particular service, such as storing a database or hosting a website
As you review the lesson, your primary goals could include the ability to:
- Understand what a mainframe is used for
- Discuss the development of mainframes
- Recognize their capabilities and current uses
- Distinguish between supercomputers and servers