Mainframes, the military, and me

As anyone who has served in the armed forces will tell you, the military is full of routines and procedures that may often seem rote and mechanical, but actually serve a very important purpose.

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U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston

It starts with Basic Training – boot camp – where raw recruits are rousted from their beds early in the morning to begin a daily regimen designed to instill discipline and order. From how to make their beds and fold their clothes to hours of physical fitness training to learning to march in step with their fellow recruits, the objective is to prepare the mind and body of each soldier for service. Perhaps even more importantly, it conditions recruits to work together as a team to achieve their shared goals – quickly, efficiently, and precisely.

Perhaps that’s why I have such an affinity for mainframe computers. They are characterized by these same principles of speed, efficiency, and precision, making them the optimal platform for many important computing tasks today – from managing banking transactions to routing airplane traffic. When military officers give orders, they must have absolute confidence that the men and women serving under them will carry it out. Many businesses and other institutions rely on their mainframes for exactly the same reason.

So how does the mainframe computing model compare with the military model? Here are a few key analogs.


Like an army on the move, enterprise computing procedures are complex and intricate, requiring incredible power and reliability to deliver the right resources at the right place and time, every time. The mainframe was designed from the beginning with this kind of discipline and rigor, offering the highest utilization rates, reliability, and energy efficiency of any computing platform available today. No other system can match it for either performance or economy today, or any time in the foreseeable future.


We don’t teach soldiers to march in step together just because it looks good. We do it because it provides the foundation for teamwork, with each team member working in harmony and precision with his or her teammates. Later, when executing more complex tasks, this group of individuals must each perform their assigned roles in concert and coordination with one another – if one is out of step, the whole effort may fail. Similarly, the mainframe’s integration of hardware, operating system, and middleware software is what makes it such an effective enterprise platform. The well-defined interfaces and standards throughout mainframe history are behind many a tech success story.


The U.S. military has a rich history of experience in serving our nation and our allies around the world. From providing humanitarian relief to victims of natural disasters to protecting civilians here and abroad from aggression, our military has more than two centuries of experience and expertise to draw on, ensuring it can complete any mission, anywhere, anytime.

In the same way, the mainframe computer and the professionals that develop and support it have more than 50 years of experience in the heart of the data center. From helping to put a man on the moon in the 60s to handling millions of online transactions effortlessly on Black Friday this year, the mainframe is built on institutional experience and expertise to handle any task assigned to it.


German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke famously observed that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Look at the D Day invasion of Normandy during World War II. Pre-invasion aerial and artillery bombardment of the beaches almost completely failed to disrupt the defenses. Landing craft missed their objectives, landing their troops in the wrong places. Nearly every paratrooper dropped behind the lines to stop enemy reinforcements from rushing to the beaches missed his drop zone. Yet the invasion succeeded, because the allied forces had the resources, training, and most importantly the adaptability to overcome these impediments and obstacles.

In the world of computing, stuff happens – hackers strike, software glitches occur, natural disasters disrupt power. But the mainframe is designed with the robustness and flexibility to isolate and minimize the impact of these disruptions. Data systems managers plan for such contingencies, but it’s the mainframe’s ability to adapt and overcome that ensures their success.

From the Minutemen of 1776 to the modern forces of today, the U.S. military is prepared to face any contingency or challenge in protecting and serving our nation. The mainframe computer is providing the same kind of faithful, reliable service, no matter what the need or challenge.

One final thought on mainframes and the military – mainframe technology provides tremendous career opportunities for veterans returning to civilian life after their service, particularly those who acquired advanced computer training while in the military. There are many programs available through federal, state and local governments, universities and private sector employers to help our veterans gain access to the training and education they need to take advantage of those opportunities. I encourage my fellow veterans to consider the mainframe when making the education and career choices.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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