June 2024

The Platform of the Ages

How the IBM Z mainframe 
continues to 
evolve and excel
Watch: IBM's Ross Mauri, Rosalind Radcliffe and Tina Tarquinio, Broadcom's Greg Lotko and VirtualZ's Jeanne Glass on the foundations that made the mainframe great
Part 1

The Evolving Mainframe

By Reg Harbeck

The 20 years after the end of World War II paved the way for the birth of the modern IBM mainframe. The subsequent 60 have been its infancy and early childhood. 


The first decade of System/360 manifested all the established excellence of science, business, academic theory, military precision, government processing, medical management and technological practice. Since then, the IBM mainframe has continually adopted and adapted to IT innovations.


Today, in a vastly heterogeneous and rapidly evolving and emerging world of IT, the IBM mainframe has come to manifest the very best of our humanity and become the nexus for the future of the definitively reliable, available and secure processing that provides a curated level of provenance and a proven trustworthiness for all its data and services.


Generation after generation of the modern IBM mainframe is planned, designed, prepared and positioned to continue to be the system of record for the world economy, according to Tina Tarquinio, vice president, Product Management, IBM Z and LinuxONE.  


“You think about the responsibility that these systems have to run mission-critical applications. I mean, imagine running the bank ledger on a system. That's what we do. Imagine airline booking systems or hotel reservations or credit card payment transactions. That's what relies on our technology, and we take that very seriously,” she says.

We want to make sure these systems have zero downtime, which is what the Z stands for…That's really incredible, but that is at the core of everything we do.

—Tina Tarquinio, vice president, Product Management, IBM Z and LinuxONE

The IBM Z’s legendary reliability and availability are among the reasons the mainframe continues to run the world economy. “We want to make sure these systems have zero downtime, which is what the Z stands for. And then if you go out there, you'll see that we have eight nines of reliability, eight nines of availability. That's less than 0.3 seconds of downtime a year. That's really incredible, but that is at the core of everything we do. … When we create new features and functions, that is where we start with those capabilities to keep the system up at all costs.”


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Expanding the Value of the Mainframe

Dr. Fred Brooks, who led the development of System/360 and OS/360 and documented the latter in his 1975 famous work, “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering,” wrote a follow-up about the design of this platform 35 years later in his 2010 book, “The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist.” In the book, he points out that, for the architecture team, the real System/360 was the design concept itself, a platonic ideal computer. 


The very fact that, less than two decades into the modern electronic computing era, it had become possible to establish a “platonic ideal” for system-of-record computing shows how profoundly it had integrity with everything that it was designed to automate, from the accounting of the business world to landing people on the moon. 


While Brooks’ 2010 perspective implicitly highlights the success of this vision, a retrospective from the 60th anniversary of this platform makes it clear that this foundational design continues to form the basis for unlimited innovation that will enable and realize whatever will drive and define IT into the future.


The visionary and foundational architectural innovations continue to emerge from this ultimate platform. Tarquinio explains, “If you zoom out, you'll see so many examples of how we were planting seeds for the future. We are always thinking about, how do we get someplace? And what are the steps we have to take there? 


“And Telum is another great example: We introduced the AI accelerator on-chip so we could do inferencing at scale. Well, that's really setting the stage for how we're going to expand the way we deliver AI compute going forward. So that was the seed, the pretty incredible seed!”


Many IBM partners have taken that innovation a step further. Jeanne Glass, 2022–2023 IBM Champion and founder and CEO, VirtualZ Computing, is one such example. VirtualZ helps clients and prospects solve data access issues by making it easier for cloud applications to access mainframe data.


“We're not innovating a new platform per se, we're extending the value of the mainframe for customers and in many ways mitigating some of the reasons customers talk about getting off the mainframe, by making it easier for the mainframe to coexist in the IT infrastructure as opposed to kind of being a separate space, bringing it together with the rest of the IT platforms,” Glass says.


“So, I know that there is a lot of opportunity for innovation in the mainframe, existing companies that have been developing mainframe software for years are continuing to innovate just like us. But I do think there is opportunity for start-ups in this space, and as I said earlier, I would love to see more start-ups coming to the mainframe space above and beyond VirtualZ.”


IBM continues to plan for future innovations for the platform. In fact, IBM Z’s plan extends at least 10 years out, according to Ross Mauri, general manager, IBM Z and LinuxONE. The mainframe team works closely with IBM Research, which plans even further out. IBM looks 10, 20 and 30 years out, according to Mauri. “And they're also signaling to us the things that we're going to need to take into account technologically wise to solve either technical problems or client business problems.”



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