Companies rely on Mainframe Computers
Available : Companies use mainframes for their mission-critical work. If a mainframe system goes offline, and access to the applications and data is affected, the company would lose millions of dollars of business.
Mainframe computers are always available, they are up and running all the time. They just don't fail. Once a Mainframe computer is started and powered on(IPL'ed), they run for 5 to 10 years at a stretch, without failing. IBM ensures that mainframe systems are available and running 99.999% of the time. Mainframe computers have very good up-times. The Mean Time Between Failures(MTBF) ranges from several months to even years.
Reliable : IBM boasts that you can bet all your money on a Mainframe, when it comes to Reliability. Very often, you must have seen the horrific Blue-Screen of Death(BSOD) on Desktop Computers, and they crash! A Mainframe Computer reliably processes huge volumes of commercial data, without crashing.
Serviceable : Faults can be detected early on a Mainframe Computer. When some components fail, some of IBM's systems can automatically call the IBM Service center. Repairs can be done without disrupting the day-to-day operations. The RAS(Reliability-Accessibility-Serviceability) features of a Mainframe Computer give it an edge over many other computing systems.
Are Mainframe computers good at everything?
Mainframe computers don’t have a beautiful user-interface like the PC at your home. You wouldn’t find a desktop wallpaper or icons on a mainframe computer.
There are specialized PUs capable of performing specific tasks. The main processors are called the Central processor(CPs). There are PUs for encryption and decryption(CPACF), Linux workloads(IFL), the co-ordination of the system efforts(ICF), those that assist the CP for any workload on the I-O subsystem(SAP), spares that come in handy when a CP fails, others for executing Java code(zAAP) and providing accelerated DB2 performance(zIIP).
Buy a z10 Mainframe server, and you’d get 12 central processors, 12 IFLs, 12 ICFs, 6 zAAPs and 6 zIIPs(Source: IBM).
The CPC cage also contains main storage(RAM). A z10 mainframe can provide upto 384 GB of RAM memory.
A channel is an independent data and control path between I/O devices and the memory. Peripheral devices like disk-drives, tapes, printers, card-readers, card-punch are connected to a mainframe computer using channels.
Because peripheral devices are relatively slower than the CPU, the CPU could waste time waiting for data from a peripheral device. A I-O Control unit is a self-contained processor, and has logic to work with a particular type of peripheral device. Channels connect to control units, which in turn manage the peripheral device.
A personal computer offers different ports to connect peripherals. It has USB ports, SCSI bus. The Mac has high-speed firewire port. Likewise, on the mainframe, channels can be OSA, ESCON or FICON. OSA Express channels are used to connect to standard networking technologies such as LAN(Ethernet), Token Ring. ESCON and FICON channels have fiber-optic cables.
Terminals connected to a mainframe computer remotely, over a network. They used the IBM 3270 protocol for communication. IBM no longer manufactures terminals, instead you use a PC running a software that mimics the terminal. Terminal emulators such as the IBM Personal Communications are quite popular.
Storage devices such as Magnetic Disk drives are used as secondary memory. IBM uses the term DASD(Direct Access Storage Device) pronounced as dazz-dee for hard-disks. Disk drives support random access to data. IBM 3380 and 3390 DASD models are widely in use. The picture below shows a 3380 DASD assembly(Source:IBM Archives).
Tape drives are also used for storage. A Tape drive allows sequential access of data. Very large files can be stored on tape-drives. Tape drives are often used for a backup of data. IBM continues to innovate the tape drive technology. IBM 3480 tapes were very popular in the last century. The picture below shows two 3480 tapes(in the front) and two 3420 tapes(the tape reels at the back). Tapes now come in a square cartridge form, instead of a tape reel.
Punched Cards(Hollerith Cards) although obsolete, have been used over a century for recording information. A punched card was a stiff paper, that represented information by the presence or absence of holes. Punched cards were used by Joseph Jacquard in the early 19th century in textile looms. By using a particular punched card, you could select a weaving pattern.
Herman Hollerith proposed the use of punched cards to store information about US nationals during the 1890 census. Jacquard cards were read-only. Hollerith envisioned that punched cards could be used as a read/write technology. A key-punching machine could be used to punch data such as age, sex or marital status of the citizen. In the picture below, you see the operators preparing data for the census.(Source: Computer Science Labs).
By the early 20th century, punched cards began to be used everywhere in the United States. Your gas bill would arrive every month with a punched card, that stored the customer name, the address, the bill amount and the due-date. In the 20th century, punched cards were used as legal documents such as US government checks.
Hollerith founded a company, The Tabulating Machine Company(1896), which after a few buyouts, became known as International Business Machines(IBM)(1911). IBM manufactured the standard 80 column punched card. A deck of cards were fed through a hopper into a card-reader. Output data could be punched onto cards using a card-punch.
The photograph above(Source: IBM Archives) shows a standard 80-column IBM card. A legacy of 80-column card is, even today terminals connected to a mainframe server have a display of 24 rows x 80 columns. The columns 73-80 contained sequence numbers and were used for sorting the punched cards.
Just as MS-DOS or Linux offer a command-line interface, the zOS too has a command-line, at which the system operator issues MVS commands to start or shut-down applications(e.g. START DB2), to monitor the workload(DISPLAY A,L) etc. Console is another term for the command-line interface of zOS. The photograph below shows how the console looks.
*13.24.28 *IWM048E WLM RUNNING IN GOAL MODE WITH THE DEFAULT
System programmers perform hardware-software upgrades, capacity planning and trains other sysops. He is a watch-dog. He installs the operating system. He applies patches(patches are called PTFs on mainframe). He also maintains other system software or products running on the mainframe.
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