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How mainframe innovations have helped shape and reshape the IT world

Illustration by Ryan Etter

Although it’s undergone several name changes in the past 50 years, the IBM System z* mainframe remains a staple in many corporate computing environments. It’s no surprise, really, given that the many innovations it has spawned have been further refined to make it the premier platform for users around the globe.

Technologies such as cloud computing, virtualization, Linux* on System z and capacity on demand, as well as advanced security and availability capabilities, have made the mainframe a rock-solid platform for many industries, including finance, insurance and government. Many of these innovations have since trickled down to other platforms, both within and outside the halls of IBM.

The Mainframe can isolate one operation from another in such a way that they’re invisible to each other. This is a tremendous security feature, and few can actually use that famous word ‘ensure.’ Not ‘hope,’ not ‘wish,’ but ‘guarantee.’ And this isn’t overblown. It’s simply a fact.”
—Bernard Meyerson, IBM Fellow and VP, Innovation

“The mainframe is where all of this began, with virtualization being just one example. Although the time delay between mainframe implementations and movement to other platforms has shrunk from, say, 20 to 30 years to five to 10 years, it remains the leader in new technology deployment,” remarks Bernard Meyerson, IBM Fellow and VP, Innovation.

Because the entire stack—from the microprocessor to the firmware to the operating systems to the middleware to the database software—is provided by IBM, “we deliver more value in terms of integration than other platforms are capable of,” says Jeff Frey, IBM System z CTO.

Clouds and Virtualization

Frey should know. Having been with IBM for 30 years, he’s seen many of the transformational technological changes the mainframe has undergone. One of these is the mainframe’s cloudlike nature.

Although cloud computing is a seemingly new concept in terms of journal headlines and user acceptance, it’s been a staple on the mainframe since its inception. As Meyerson explains, “The virtualization attribute of the ‘modern’ cloud is defined as having the capability to share access among multiple users to a centralized pool of resources, enabling the efficient utilization of all available compute hardware and software functionality. That is, in fact, how you define the mainframe, and from a functional point of view, it’s very much the same thing.”

More than simply acting as a cloud in a box, the mainframe supports more recent notions of cloud. To that end, IBM has deployed several tools that ease this implementation, including CSL-Wave, which makes it much easier for administrators to manage and deploy a cloud instance, and the venerable capacity on demand, which allows system administrators to turn resources on and off as needed, whether natively within the mainframe or in a cloud environment.

And that’s baked into the mainframe, much like virtualization. Rather than being bolted on as an afterthought, System z VMs, which have been running on the mainframe for some 30 years, are a basic component of the mainframe hardware. They allow virtualized workloads to run very efficiently at near native-hardware speeds. Considering how many current mainframe users are offloading some of their processing to virtual environments, this isn’t a trivial issue.

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at



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