The Gen Xer's Guide to the Mainframe

A newly appointed young IT director is set on migrating his company away from the mainframe, only to research and be won over by all the selling points of the IBM System z platform.


Note: This is the first article in a three-part series.

With IT baby boomers beginning to retire, Generation Xers, those born after 1964, are next in line to inherit the legacy of the world's IT infrastructure. This article describes a story, in which 41-year-old Ben, the newly anointed IT Director of Empire Health Services, a fictional health company, gets his introduction to the world of the mainframe. Much of this story is true, though the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Ben, a graduate of a prestigious university, learned all about distributed systems while getting his MIS Degree. In addition, his first several positions were with companies that relied on distributed systems and networks. His last company had mainframe systems, but he only managed the midrange and had no exposure to them at all. Ben has just accepted an offer to lead the technology for Empire Health Services, one of the largest healthcare companies in the world, and has discovered there is more to IT than networks and midrange UNIX and Linux servers. For the first time he’ll now need to understand the mainframe. His plan is to get his employer converted to Linux—the OS he loves and learned about during his graduate studies. Ben loves open systems. Ben’s resume already included a migration effort from UNIX to Linux, and his first thought was to do this migration here as well. He would modernize this company and set them on “the right track,” or so he envisioned.

The History of the Mainframe

Because mainframes were so new to Ben, and he supported an environment that connected to the mainframe, he had a fair bit of research to do. First, he decided to discover why the mainframe came to be in the first place, and how it evolved into the staple of an operation as large as Empire Health Services.

Ben started researching the different styles of computing and came across some interesting tidbits regarding distributed systems and centralized computing. PCs really evolved from mainframes, partly because there was no processing power at the user-level. It was that processing power and flexibility (allowing everyone to use PCs) that spawned the age of distributed systems and networks. People started to question the need for mainframes as they started to do processing on commodity PCs, which were clearly much cheaper than mainframes. Then the Internet era was born and distributed systems grew like wildfire in the ‘90s. The mainframe was surely going the way of the dinosaurs.

Then another interesting development occurred. IT started struggling to manage and maintain their distributed server farms. PC servers ended up alongside employees’ desks, but guess who was called when there was a problem, even with decentralized servers? Centralized IT, who struggled to maintain these servers because they were literally all over the place, with no standards, or documentation and in many cases, no backups. The cost and complexity of maintaining these systems were increasing exponentially. Businesses were forced to re-evaluate their positions on the mainframe.


Ken Milberg, CATE, PMP, is a diverse IT Professional with 20+ years of experience. He is a Power Systems Champion. Ken is a technology writer and site expert for techtarget and has also been a frequent contributor of content for IBM developerWorks. Ken has also been a freelance writer for IBM Systems Magazine and is a former technical editor. He can be reached at

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