Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Starting in the late 1950s and lasting for several decades, the most common form of computing was based on mainframe computers. The first major blow to the dominance of mainframes came from the broad deployment of mini computers and the second major blow came from the even broader development of personal computers. While mainframe computers never went away, they languished for years in relative obscurity. However, as will be explained in the next few newsletters, there is evidence to suggest that we are entering a new era of mainframe computing.

Were you a techie geek in the 1980s?

While it is common to associate mainframe computers with IBM, the reality is that several manufacturers produced mainframe computers from the late 1950s through the 1970s. The group of manufacturers was often referred to as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". In that context, Snow White was IBM and the seven dwarfs were Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data Corporation, Honeywell, General Electric and RCA. IBM will likely be a major player in the emerging generation of mainframe computing. However, this time its competition will come from giant competitors, not dwarfs.

Mainframe computing was based on a few fundamental building blocks. Those building blocks were the end user devices in the branch offices, the network that connected those branch office devices, a wide area network that connected the branch offices to a data center and a mainframe computer and associated equipment such as front-end processors. This newsletter will begin the process of looking at the end user devices of the original mainframe era and compare and contrast them to the end user devices of the emerging era of mainframe computing.

When the original mainframe era began, the standard end user device was a dumb terminal that was often referred to as an ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) terminal. It got this name because it was a simple input/output device that transmitted and received ASCII data. In the early 1970s this device was replaced by the IBM 3270 terminal in part because the 3270 terminal minimized the number of I/O interrupts required by accepting large blocks of data known as datastreams.

The standard application of the original mainframe era was some form of transaction processing, such as processing insurance claims. In this environment, users were generally presented with forms to fill out. The user moved about the form with arrow, tab and backtab keys, filling in and correcting the various fields. When finished, the user pressed the Enter key. As noted, this style of computing lost favor in the client-server world that was ushered in by the ubiquitous deployment of PCs. However, as we will discuss in the next newsletter, this style of computing has gained favor in the last few years. Only now, instead of calling it a dumb terminal we call it thin client computing.

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