At our London Zettastructure event, we looked at the future of the parts that make up the data center, as the industry is getting ready to store and process zettabytes of information. We’ll need elastic storage pools that manage themselves, optical networking that pushes against the physical limits of speed, and architectures that abandon the notion of servers as individual machines with their own storage, memory and compute.

The data hall is going to change, and fast. But you can be damn sure we’ll still have mainframes, and considering their ridiculously long lifespan, they’ll probably be the exact same mainframes we are using today. These beasts pre-date client/server architecture, they can run code that was written 50 years ago, and they keep coming back from the dead.

Unkillable mainframes

christ of the abyss
A Drowned God (Christ of the Abyss, Liguria) – Yoruno / Wikipedia

Mainstream technology publications don’t talk about mainframe computing. There’s a shortage of people qualified to run mainframes, teenagers don’t want to learn the intricacies of building a sysplex, and they definitely don’t want to learn an obscure language like COBOL. Mainframes cost millions, they require care and attention, and specialized software. And license pricing, well… it will bring a tear to a grown man’s eye. In theory, these relics should have been replaced by distributed commodity systems as soon as cloud computing arrived. They should be dead.

And yet according to IBM, the vast majority of corporate data still resides on mainframes. Following the sale of traditional servers to Lenovo, Big Iron has emerged as the company’s most profitable hardware business. Salaries for mainframe programmers and administrators are some of the highest in the IT industry. And the dead keep marching on. Last year, IBM donated 250,000 lines of mainframe code to the Open Mainframe Project, kickstarting the effort to improve compatibility with ubiquitous Linux, instead of the trusty old OS/2. The company also launched LinuxONE Emperor – “the world’s most advanced Linux system” – which can power up to 8,000 virtual machines from a single chassis.

In theory, these relics should have been replaced by distributed commodity systems as soon as cloud computing arrived. But the dead keep marching on

IBM is pitching the modern mainframe as the ultimate server – a dense, powerful system with guaranteed uptime that feels at home on the network and loves to share its resources. And even if Big Blue decides to sell its mainframe business – yep, that’s the rumor – someone else will carry the torch.

Attempts to kill off the mainframe will continue. For example, Swiss startup LzLabs is currently offering a platform that can run fully featured mainframe code on any computer. While this will make certain use cases a reality, it is unlikely to offer the same levels of RAS: Reliability, Availability and Serviceability – three words that have shaped mainframe computing.

For some reason, I keep thinking about the religious chant of the denizens of the Iron Isles, a fictional realm in Game of Thrones: “What is dead may never die. But rises again, harder and stronger.”