What is a mainframe computer?

In dozens of films and series that even begin to deal with hacking or elaborate burglary situations, there is talk of a so-called "mainframe". My favorite quote on this is from Basher in Ocean's Eleven: "Those damn demolition losers didn't use a coax lynch to secure the main line. As a result, the idiots completely bludgeoned the mainframe into the bin.But even with Mission Impossible, Transformers, Office Space, The Matrix and Co. one can ask oneself for corresponding statements: What is a mainframe computer? Here you will find the answer!

In Hollywood movies or series, the "mainframe" is sometimes hacked. But what is a mainframe computer anyway? What are the tasks of the mainframe? Information and examples can be found here!
In Hollywood movies or series, the “mainframe” is sometimes hacked. But what is a mainframe computer anyway? What are the tasks of the mainframe? Information and examples can be found here!

What actually is a mainframe?

A mainframe computer is a large computer that can reliably handle many recurring processes and tasks involving large amounts of data. In addition, it is made to work with high input-output efficiency. A mainframe can e.g. B. for the central processing of flight bookings or other reservation data, for handling customer data in insurance companies, large corporations and banks or as support for company-wide resource planning.

The mainframe, called the mainframe, has to manage a lot of data and be able to quickly convert intended inputs and deliver outputs. In addition, the components of the mainframe must be robust. The specially developed operating systems not only have to be efficient, but also fail-safe. Furthermore, it is important that there are redundant components for the multiple storage of system and data. This prevents failures and enables maintenance during operation. 

What is the difference between mainframe and supercomputer?

Even if the dimensions of mainframes and supercomputers can be similar, there are significant differences in the computing power and the tasks assigned to them. Supercomputers are characterized by extremely high computing power, which is used to process scientific data, calculate models and simulations, test theories or conduct similar research. The mainframe, on the other hand, is not designed for high performance, but for efficiency and high data throughput in order to repeat recurring tasks countless times and to respond to individual requests at the same time.

An IBM Z9 with a paired laptop as a support/maintenance item. Source: Wikimedia / Richard Hilber (public domain material)
An IBM Z9 with a paired laptop as a support/maintenance item. Source: Wikimedia / Richard Hilber (public domain material)

Examples of mainframe manufacturers

  • IBM
  • Fujitsu (including acquired manufacturers such as Amdahl and ICL)
  • Fujitsu Technology Solutions
  • Hitachi
  • Oracle (mainframe division through acquisition of Sun Microsystems)
  • Bull (belongs to Atos Technologies)
  • NEC (belongs to the Sumitomo Group)
  • Cray (but the focus is on supercomputers)

mainframe components

Even a mainframe consists of components that we are all familiar with. This includes the main processor (CPU), main memory (RAM), storage media such as hard drives, input-output modules for connecting peripherals, communication interfaces for integration into networks, and the like. However, they are composed of specially coordinated components and are equipped with operating systems (z/OS, z/VM, z/VSE, OS/360, BS2000, NOS, CMS, GCOS, etc.) that run efficiently on them.

The equipment of a mainframe also includes virtualization technologies with which various virtual environments can be created on the mainframe. These can then be used for the tasks to be performed with them. In this way, data processing can continue to take place on the mainframe, even if this would theoretically require different machines and systems. Last but not least, safety technology is an important part - you don't want children to sit down at the screen,"That's a Unix system, I know that!' and then lock the doors in Jurrasic Park.

Mainframe computers in films: "Protective layer" as misinterpretation

A mainframe is simply a large computer that stores and processes data efficiently and securely, grants individual people or institutions access for individual requests and, if necessary, is coupled with server systems or a supercomputer for additional functionalities (e.g. in 2007 by IBM with regard to a "gameframe" for VR and 3D Internet). In films and series, however, the name "mainframe" was and is used incorrectly again and again.

Hair means something like "main" or "general", and Frame can be translated as "frame" or "scaffolding". The layman's assumption is not far off that a mainframe represents the backbone of the entire system or a kind of protective layer - a firewall, if you like. So in order to hack the system, switch off the security system, shut down the power supply or the like, this protective layer is symbolically breached, "penetrated into the mainframe" and then the Hollywood hacker goal is achieved.

An Ode to Movie Mainframes

As already mentioned at the beginning, I came across this topic through pop culture's mention of mainframes. For this post, I wanted to pick out one or two videos that show relevant film scenes – for example the one from Ocean's Eleven. But when I searched, I came across “An Ode to Movie Mainframes”, a musical one compilation from over two dozen mainframe mentions from Golden Eye and Alien Resurrection to Iron Man 2 and Beverly Hills Cop III to South Park and Austin Powers.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3)

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