The Eternal Mainframe

by Rudolf Winestock

In the computer industry, the Wheel of Reincarnation is a pattern whereby specialized hardware gets spun out from the “main” system, becomes more powerful, then gets folded back into the main system. As the linked Jargon File entry points out, several generations of this effect have been observed in graphics and floating-point coprocessors.

In this essay, I note an analogous pattern taking place, not in peripherals of a computing platform, but in the most basic kinds of “computing platform.” And this pattern is being driven as much by the desire for “freedom” as by any technical consideration.

“Revolution” has many definitions. From the looks of this, I'd say “going around in circles” comes closest to applying...

-Richard M. Hartman

A funny thing happened on the way to the future. The mainframe outlasted its replacements.


Minicomputers were supposed to kill the mainframe. They are gone. Digital Equipment Corporation and Data General are dead. The last minicomputers were IBM's AS/400 line, renamed to System i, then merged with the Power Systems. IBM's victory over the minicomputer is so total that people seldom even use the word “minicomputer,” anymore. Nowadays, the preferred word is “midrange computer,” a term coined by the mainframe maker, IBM.


Microcomputers were supposed to kill the mainframe. They came close in the 1990s (Stewart Alsop famously predicted that the last mainframe would be shut down in 1996) but they, too, failed. Instead, microcomputers are being superseded by tablets and smartphones. Of course, we don't call them microcomputers, anymore. We call them personal computers; a term coined by the mainframe maker, IBM.


The microcomputer's bigger cousin, the workstation, fared even worse. Apollo, Symbolics, and LMI are dead. Xerox and Texas Instruments gave up. Sun got bought. SGI isn't what it used to be. The importance of the present Xeon- and Opteron-based workstation market does not compare to what the workstation market was in the 1990s. Ironically, one of the last of the “classic” workstations, the RS/6000, was, like the AS/400, renamed and then assimilated into the Power Systems line of the mainframe maker, IBM.

An Objection

Someone may counter the above by pointing to servers. Take a pile of PCs and adapt them for serving files, or a network connection, or any other service. Hook them up together and the result is competitive with a mainframe. Does that disprove my thesis? No. Look at the result.

Before looking at the result, look at the etymology of the word “mainframe.” In the stone age of computing, computers were made up of refrigerator-sized modules housing the vacuum tubes. Those modules were attached to steel frames holding them up off of the floor in order to fit the cabling and to better enable maintenance. The frame holding the central processing module was the “main” frame.

Nowadays, we speak of “racks” instead of steel frames.

The Result

The result is that the modern server farm looks like those first computer rooms. Row after row of metal frames (excuse me—racks) bearing computer modules in a room that's packed with cables and extra ventilation ducts. Just like mainframes. Server farms have multiple redundant CPUs, memory, disks, and network connections. Just like mainframes. The rooms that house these server farms are typically not open even to many people in the same organization, but only to dedicated operations teams. Just like mainframes.

In short, not only do server farms physically resemble mainframes, and perform many of the same functions as mainframes; operationally, they are treated in much the same way as mainframes.

Server farms have Greenspunned mainframes.

This is the Wheel of Reincarnation in its biggest possible cycle. The movement to replace the mainframe has re-invented the mainframe.

The Return of Time-Sharing

Thanks to open standards, servers can be made from commodity components, lowering the barrier to entry into this pseudo-mainframe market. In fact, any company that has built large server farms for their own purposes could sell spare crunch to others. Think of it! Companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google could handle the computer janitor end of the job, leaving the core part of development and deployment to interested customers.

Wait a minute. They already do.

The Internet and web applications have been enablers for these server farms, for these mainracks, if you will. People use these web apps on smartphones, on notebooks, on tablets, and on the fading desktop. The client paints pixels while the server farm — the mainrack — does the backend work. More than a dozen iterations of Moore's Law later, and the Wheel of Reincarnation has returned us to terminals connected to Big Iron.

And there's the rub. The movement to replace the mainframe has re-invented not only the mainframe, but also the reason why people wanted to get rid of mainframes in the first place.

Fight the Man!

Histories of the early days of the IT industry are a digital version of Whig history.

Only large institutions could afford computers. Access was strictly limited; none but a select priesthood could enter the machine room. Those without privilege were excluded. Users had to surrender their punch cards and wait patiently for the output to be returned only to find out, three days later, that a bug had made the output useless.

But thanks to progress and the struggle for software freedom, we are all empowered to use computers to organize and share with our communities and warglgarglthbtbtbtbtbt

All Hail the Narrative!

Ever notice how often writers use the word “priesthood” to describe the operations teams in charge of mainframes? Neither the Spanish, nor the Roman, nor any other national or ecclesiastical Inquisition was anywhere in sight of the development of mainframes, yet people keep resurrecting anti-clerical tropes from the Black Legends in order to impugn them. For example, in Accidental Empires, Robert X. Cringely described IBM's PS/2 line as an attempt to make the computer industry “return to Holy Mother Church.”

Anyway. The point is that people moved away from mainframes because they wanted to be free. They didn't want to be shackled by IBM's by-the-minute CPU charges and other restrictions. They didn't want their destiny altered by anything other than their own free choices.

So the revolutionary vanguard moved to minicomputers. Then they moved to workstations. When Linux was ready, they moved to the PC. When Eternal September began, the revolutionary vanguard fought Microsoft FUD and did an end run around the Microsoft Monopoly.

And here we are. All of that computing power and free software is — quite literally — in the hands of The People™. And, by their own free choices, we find ourselves back — in Robert X. Cringely's words — in the arms of Holy Mother Church.

Freedom Has Failed

Users love the web apps coded by rebellious hackers who'd never have fit in during the Stone Age of computing. Without any compulsion, those users volunteered their data to web apps running on mainracks that are owned — in all senses of that word — by publicly-traded companies. Those companies must meet investor targets set by the kind of Wall Street analysts who light votive candles in front of first-edition copies of Liar's Poker.

Others have pointed out the potential for abuse in having one's private data locked into such platforms. Demanding the ability to export our data and permanently delete our accounts wouldn't help even if we could do it. The data is most valuable when it is in the mainrack. Your Facebook data isn't nearly as useful without the ability to post to the pages of your friends. Your Google Docs files aren't as useful without the ability to collaborate with others. Dynamic state matters; it's the whole point of having computers because it allows automation and communication.

This is why “free” and open source software (FOSS) will not help us. A software license touches on the software, not on the human relationships which the software mediates. It is those relationships that lock us into positions where Zuckerberg's foot is on our necks. In fact, it's FOSS that has enabled the web companies to bootstrap their start-ups so quickly and cheaply. It's FOSS that gave those web companies the flexibility to insinuate themselves as gatekeepers over our personal data.

The open standards that liberated the personal computer from IBM have enabled the new web companies to cheaply build their own mainframe substitutes — the mainracks. Like their mid-century ancestors, they are large, centralized, and contain personal data at the mercy of organizations that only answer to shareholders and government bureaucrats. Open standards and open source were supposed to liberate us from authority and the need for authority. Instead, they have made it attractive for millions of people to fall over themselves to make the prodigal son's return back to Holy Mother Church.

Meet the New Boss; Worse Than the Old Boss

You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

-The Dark Knight, Frank Miller

We can beg and plead to have those companies respect our privacy, but they need money to run those mainracks. They need money to pay themselves enough to justify those 100+ hours per week. More pressing than that, they need money to satisfy the investors in search of the hundred-bagger.

Pleading will not help because the interests of those companies and their users are misaligned. One reason why they are misaligned is because one side has all of the crunch; terabytes of data, sitting in the servers, begging to be monetized. Rather than giving idealistic hackers the means to liberate the users from authority, the democratization of computing has only made it easier for idealistic hackers to get into this conflict of interest. That means that more of them will actually do so and in more than one company.

You see, in the past, the computer industry was dominated by single corporations; first IBM, then Microsoft. Being lone entities, their dominance invited opposition. Anti-trust suits of varying (lack of) effectiveness were filed against them. In the present, we don't even have that thin reed. Thanks to progress, we now have an entire social class of people who have an incentive to be rent-seekers sitting on our data.

Being members of the same social class, they will have interests in common, whatever their rivalries. Those common interests will lead to cooperation in matters that conflict with the interests of their users. For example, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) is backed by Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and, yes, Google, too.

Never forget that this social class is made up of computer nerds who spent their adolescence griping about Micro$oft. The computer nerds at the latter, in their time, laughed at the suits at IBM. This is progress. The Microsoft Tax was paid in ordinary money. Google and Facebook levy their rent in a different coin: your privacy.

The Inevitability of the Mainframe

The step after ubiquity is invisibility.

-Al Mandel

The microcomputer revolution is over. Home computers are not unusual, anymore; the novelty is gone. Furthermore, even many professionals do not enjoy playing the part of computer janitor on their home rigs, to say nothing of grandma.

Aside from games, the demoscene, and other creative coding pursuits, computers are a means to an end; they are tools. Most people have greater interest in the goal than the route to the goal. Therefore, it makes sense from both an economic and user experience perspective to delegate the boring parts of computing whenever practical.

The fact that minicomputers, microcomputers, and workstations were ever successful indicates that the computer and telecommunications industries were still immature. It may also indicate that Big Blue and the Death Star were price gouging, but that's another story.

This outcome was foreseen more than half a century ago. Multics is the best-known example of computing as a service but the concept goes back almost a decade earlier. John McCarthy, of Lisp fame, predicted in 1961:

If computers of the kind I have advocated become the computers of the future, then computing may someday be organized as a public utility just as the telephone system is a public utility… The computer utility could become the basis of a new and important industry.

-Architects of the Information Society, Garfinkel & Abelson

Ultimately, there are only two natural kinds of computers: embedded systems and mainframes. I'm not using the word “natural” in the modern sense (viz., “that which is observed to occur”) but in the ancient and medieval sense. In other words, those ways are congruent with the definition of computers and of computation. Those ways are most fitting with the typical uses of computers.

By extending the capabilities of computers to their technological and logical limits, we get computers controlling mundane gadgets and doing major calculations. Good user experience demands that the computer interface should get out of the way, that it be invisible. Thus, it makes sense to present only as much computing power as the user needs.

The mainframe is the eternal computing platform.

The Endgame

Janie Crane: “An off switch?”

Metrocop: “She'll get years for that. Off switches are illegal!”

-Max Headroom, season 1, episode 6, “The Blanks”

The desktop computer won't completely disappear. Instead, the outward form of the personal computer will be retained, but the function — and the design — will change to a terminal connected to the cloud (which is another word for server farm, which is another word for mainrack, which converges on mainframes, as previously prophesied). True standalone personal computers may return to their roots: toys for hobbyists.

Those who continue to do significant work offline will become the exception; meaning they will be an electoral minority. With so much effort being put into web apps, they may even be seen as eccentrics; meaning there may not be much sympathy for their needs in the halls of power.

So much personal data in the hands of a small number of corporations presents a tempting target for governments. We've seen many pieces of legislation meant to facilitate cooperation between Big Business and Big Government for the sake of user surveillance. Some of this legislation has even been defeated. We will see more. Where legislation fails, we will see court precedents. Where the courts fail, we will see treaties. When all of those fail, the bureaucrats will hand down new sets of rules by fiat.

Big Business will be on their side; whether as masters, lessers, or partners does not make much difference.

Offline computer use frustrates the march of progress. If offline use becomes uncommon, then the great and the good will ask: “What are you hiding? Are you making kiddie porn? Laundering money? Spreading hate? Do you want the terrorists to win?”

What Must be Done

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn

We must establish as many precedents as we can to preserve the right to buy, build, use, sell, donate, and keep fully functional, general purpose, standalone computers. Plenty of activists are already doing that. This is good.

What I have not heard those activists say — what I advise — is that we should second-guess ourselves as well as our masters. The point of this essay is that it's not only advancing technology that has recreated the mainframe and the abuses to which it is prone; the very desire for absolute freedom has done its part, as well. The good intentions of our fellow nerds who promised to not be evil has brought us to this.

This is not a fight between Good Guys and Bad Guys. This is a balancing act. Some rule; others are ruled. This is a harsh truth. We can't change that. We can soften the edges. This will require a conversation to which we must invite philosophers, ethicists, theologians; people who have thought deeply on what it takes to make a just society. Otherwise, we will — yet again — find ourselves back where we started.

Die Revolution ist wie Saturn, sie frißt ihre eignen Kinder.

The Revolution is like Saturn, it eats its own children.

-Danton's Death
Act I, Georg Büchner

I first published this essay on Throwww because I was curious about that site, having heard of it on Hacker News, and because I wanted to teach myself Markdown. Thanks to Saeid Fard for making Throwww, and thanks to Evan Wondrasek for making the excellent editor, MarkdownPad, which I used to write this essay.

This essay was featured on Slashdot as well as BBC Future shortly after I published it on Throwww. Within a few weeks, the essay became the second most-viewed article on Throwww. Later, it appeared in issue #29 of StatusCode, published by Cooper Press.

Hungarian translation courtesy of Zsolt Boros

Romanian translation courtesy of Irina Vasilescu.

Polish translation courtesy of Marie Štefanová.

Portuguese translation courtesy of Artur Weber

Swedish translation courtesy of Johanne Teerink.

Estonian translation courtesy of Adrian Pantilimonu.

Hindi translation courtesy of Nathan Zed.

Georgian translation courtesy of Ana Mirilashvili.

French translation courtesy of Rutherd Barn.

Turkish translation courtesy of Zoltan Solak.

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