Early in my career, a couple of decades back, I was commissioned to write a report on the rise of client/server computing. In doing background research, I came across endless articles and reports on the fast decline of mainframe systems. Enterprise workloads, everyone said, would soon be assumed by distributed arrays of PC servers, which were far more costly and economical. I tried to take a more balanced approach in my own report, but given the talk of the time, no one would have dared to predict that mainframes would be churning out the world's workloads in 2013, and that more people would be using mainframes (over the web) than ever before.
No one is predicting the demise of the mainframe anymore, except for the occasional uninformed article that expresses surprise that the “dinosaurs” are still being used for this or that. So, predictions of the imminent decline of the PC should also be taken with a grain of salt at this time. First, the PC form factor—a workstation setup with a sizable screen and keyboard—is needed for most types of heads-down work. Tablets now duplicate that, with keyboards and all, but that raises the question of whether they actually are, simply, still PCs with detachable touchscreens. And what about the PCs equipped with touchscreens?
Along these lines, Wayne Kernochan, an experienced industry analyst, also recently weighed in on the non-demise of PCs and mainframes, asking: “Why can't the mainframe and the PC stay decently dead?” He points to rising mainframe and PC sales at IBM and HP and wonders why this is so, given the endless pronouncements of the deaths of these machines.
The mainframe is well positioned to help companies manage big data loads, and mainframe architectures these days are very open and flexible. “To the end user, developer, and administrator, the mainframe, if needed, can appear more or less as a transparent part of a fully modern overall enterprise architecture.” And, one mainframe machine in a 1,000-person company is cheaper and simpler to run than a cobbled-together server farm. “The mainframe pushes the limits of scale-up computing,” Wayne adds.
That brings us to PCs, the other “dying” compute mode. Wayne agrees with me that form factor is key in the enterprise. “The relatively large form factor is a plus rather than a minus,” he asserts. “There is a 'finger limit' in which the typing necessary to create large-scale amounts of real content can only be accomplished on a sufficient-sized screen.”
Wayne also notes that the value of the PC “has been its ability to store personal data and applications, whether as a 'home within an office' that allows the end user to generate his or her own PowerPoints and spreadsheets, or as a bridge between home and office to allow work wherever.” Despite the rise of the cloud, there are a lot of things that users will prefer to keep local.
The bottom line is that we will still have PCs and mainframes around for a long time to come, and they will co-exist with smartphones, tablets, phablets, Google Glasses, and anything else that comes along. And more choice is only a good thing for end users and their companies.
Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.
Readers are encouraged to respond to Joe using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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