A computer that actually works reliably, invisibly, 24/7
A guest column by Reg Harbeck

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 22, 2013

Over the years that my columns have run in the Cochrane Eagle I have enjoyed input from my whole family in these weekly visits with you.

This week I’m running another guest column by our son, Calgary-based computer philosopher REG HARBECK (see my column for Sept. 12, 2012), who raises the question: Is there any truly reliable computer?

As I type this column, one of my computers has a blue screen with white text on it saying it has crashed and needs rebooting. Another one is no longer willing to be turned on. In my basement are other computers that no longer work.

And when such PCs do run, they’re still subject to all kinds of problems from viruses (and malfunctioning anti-virus software) to hanging and hacking.

Does this remind you of your experience with personal computers?

Of course, we’re used to consumer devices failing. Ostensibly, such built-in obsolescence keeps the economy in motion as people constantly replace and update their obsolete and broken devices.

But what if such unreliability characterized the global systems on which our health, wealth and national security ultimately depend?

If you project the frequency and severity with which PCs fail us as if they applied to big business and government, you’d expect to be constantly waiting for access to your bank account or bills or taxes, not to mention a plethora of other theoretical problems which rarely seem to occur.

In fact, that was the case in the 1960’s, as the IBM mainframe, the greatest computer in history, matured.

Since then, consumer computers have arrived to inherit the mantle of, “To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer.” But when was the last time you recall that applying to your bills, bank or taxes?

The funny thing is, no one seems to realize that the IBM mainframe, which turns 50 next year, is still around, having learned all the hard lessons that consumer computers are still struggling with. And it’s now supporting the world economy so reliably that it’s reminiscent of the saying, “Housework is something nobody notices unless you don’t do it.”

IBM mainframe computers work so well that everyone seems to have forgotten that they even exist!

OK, not quite everyone. In fact, I just spent a week in Boston at SHARE, a conference of people who keep that computing platform running at the largest organizations on Earth.

These smart, hard-working, mostly-introverted people have chosen careers of service to humanity through being business technologists who support the IBM mainframe at the few thousand businesses and government organizations around the world who use it to handle the largest amounts of the most secure and important business data and processing on Earth.

The current name of this amazing computer is the zEnterprise (pronounced “z Enterprise”). Originally, on April 7, 1964 it was announced as IBM’s System/360.

It was designed and then enhanced based on principles that embody the very best practices of responsibility, planning, security and reliability, going all the way back through human history.

Meanwhile, the consumer computers that came after it were generally just commodity boxes with no more than a nod to these principles, and have never really risen far above that compared to the multidimensional powerhouse that is today’s mainframe.

But why should you care about this?

The good news is, you don’t have to care – it’s just there, working, making up for the unreliability of every other computing platform on Earth by handling the data and processing that are critical to our wellbeing.

But you should care, because the people who decide about the future of business computing listen to what their friends and colleagues say, and often take it more seriously than what their own in-house technical experts say.

So, next time you’re chatting with colleagues and someone mentions reliable computing or “legacy mainframes,” do the responsible thing and point out that the world economy still runs on IBM mainframes: the computers that actually work – reliably, invisibly, 24/7.


© 2013 Reginald Harbeck

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