Mainframe computers are powerful data computing and storage machines which process a high percentage of the world’s data. Many individuals work with companies that use mainframe computers, and most individuals on the planet have personal information of some sort stored in a mainframe, from health records and airline bookings. This means that understanding mainframe computers may be a useful to build knowledge of how the companies you interact with store and process your data. In this article, we define mainframe computers, explain who uses them, list components, features and functions of mainframe computers and provide several pros and cons.
What is a mainframe computer?
A mainframe computer, colloquially known as “big iron,” is a powerful electronic device with the ability to process and store large amounts of data. These are the largest category of data servers and are more secure than a typical computer. They’re also particularly powerful and reliable. While the exact operating capacity may depend on the model, many mainframe computers may have the ability to process up to one trillion transactions every day.
Who uses mainframe computers?
Large organizations with high-data processing or storage needs may be most likely to use a mainframe computer. Airlines, banks, retailers, e-commerce companies, government agencies and IT service providers are all examples of entities that might use a mainframe computer. Scientists may also use mainframe computers to help store and process data for scientific research. Large-scale projects like the national census also rely on the high-capacity processing and storage capabilities of mainframe computers.
One specific example of mainframe computer use is within the healthcare system. Hospitals and healthcare providers use mainframes to store data including the contact information, appointment schedules, medical records and clinical tests for millions of patients. There are laws protecting the security of patient information and medical provider confidentiality, making the heightened security levels that mainframe computer systems offer particularly useful.
Components of mainframe computers
The specific makeup of a mainframe computer may vary depending on the brand, size and power associated. Here are a few major mainframe computer components that you might find across a variety of different models:
Central processing unit: Also known as CPU, this is the electronic circuitry which interprets instructions and performs functions. A mainframe computer may have multiple CPUs housed together in a central processing complex to increase processing power.
Control unit: This is the system by which a user can interface with the mainframe. It may consist of a selection of buttons, ports or drives via which the user may issue commands or upload information.
Communication controllers: Communication controllers are the component of a mainframe that allows other computers to connect and transfer data remotely. This allows individuals to use the storage and processing functions of a mainframe without physically visiting its location.
Storage unit: The storage unit of a mainframe computer is where data resides for long-term access. Storage units within mainframe computers can store large amounts of data, and may also contain other devises like hard drives which are controlled by the CPU.
Motherboard: The motherboard is the central circuit board of the mainframe computer which ties connects each of the other components via a complex electronic system. This is also what enables different elements of the mainframe to communicate with each other.
Input/output channels: Input/output channels, or I/O channels, are the lines of communication that help information move in an organized fashion from one element of the mainframe to another. For example, wires connecting the CPU to the control unit would likely be I/O channels.
Features and functions of mainframe computers
The features of a mainframe computers that set them apart from more standard servers center on their power and processing ability. They’re also highly reliable and long-lasting machines. A few specific characteristics include:
High processing power
Large memory and storage capacity
Ability to support several peripheral devices simultaneously
Ability to support many users simultaneously
Ability to run numerous applications simultaneously
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Benefits and Drawbacks of mainframe computers
When considering purchasing a mainframe computer, it may be helpful to understand the advantages and disadvantages involved. Here are several pros and cons of mainframe computers to consider:
The major benefits of mainframe computers are those features listed above, including their high processing power, large storage capabilities and reliability. There are also a number of other benefits which may
Mainframe computers have much longer lifespans than an average server. They’re extremely durable and often perform well for at least ten years after the date of purchase. This is helpful because it means that the large amounts of data and processing that the mainframe handles are likely to be secure for a decade or more.
Mainframe computers also feature a high level of scalability. Scalability is when the hardware, software and applications of a computer can continue to function well as the owner makes additions or changes to the computer. Companies that wish to update their mainframe computers, instead of purchasing a new device when the original becomes outdated, may add upgrades like additional CPU or memory. These elements make the long-lasting nature of a mainframe a significant benefit.
The security capabilities of mainframe computers are another major benefit. Their simplified architecture, paired with advanced encoding abilities, makes these machines secure enough to be used by banks and government offices. You can also increase the security of your mainframe by updating the security software, encrypting data and implementing security procedures and precautions for when the data is being transferred.
Virtualization is the term applied to the creation of a virtual computer system within the existing computer system. To do this, mainframe computers use software that mimics the functionality of hardware. The result is the mainframe’s ability to run multiple operating systems simultaneously from the same system. Virtualization also helps to create expansive performance capabilities and nearly limitless memory.
There are also some disadvantages of mainframe computers to consider. These include:
Mainframe computers operate differently than standard servers. This means that the average computer user may not have the specialized knowledge needed to operate, update or troubleshoot the mainframe. Instead, mainframe owners may hire specialized staff or contract out to qualified professionals. While this may require a little more money in the mainframe budget, the complexity of the mainframes themselves can make it worth the expense for professional help.
Mainframe computers cost significantly more than an average server option. Companies purchasing a mainframe computer may expect to pay around $75,000. Mainframes may also require custom hardware and software which add to the overall price. The high price may be part of the reason that these devises are generally used by banks, government organizations or major companies that are able to generate the revenue needed to purchase a mainframe computer.
Physical size and storage
A standard mainframe today is roughly the size of a refrigerator and the weight of a car. While this is considerably more compact than the mainframe computers of the 1980s and 1990s, which could comprise of an entire office building floor’s worth of interconnected machinery, the large size of a contemporary mainframe computer may make storing it a challenge. Companies may also have multiple mainframes, which may require even more space.
In addition to the size, companies may face challenges related to the environment in which they keep their mainframe. For example, cool environments may be best for mainframe computers so that they remain functional rather than overheating. Big warehouses with naturally cool temperatures may be the optimal solution for these size and storage related challenges.