sociobiology and the mainframe
September 8, 2016 DevOps

Sociobiology and the Mainframe: Adapt or Become Extinct

If you haven’t heard of sociobiology, it’s the idea you can take evolution and apply it to other areas. It’s an interesting way to look at things, and it happens to provide a useful framework for examining trends in technology.

If you examine IT through the lens of sociobiology, you can see over time new technologies appear, evolve, peak and, at times, become extinct. Fossils and vestiges remind us of the innovation that buried them.

An easy example would be punched cards. They came, they dominated, then they were replaced by other technologies that offered improvements. Punched cards couldn’t adapt, and therefore, became extinct.

We could all offer other examples of technologies that have fallen by the wayside and become “dinosaurs” due to their lack of innovation, either because innovation was impossible or because of poor strategic decisions that prevented it. Today, some point to the mainframe as a dinosaur ready for extinction.

As with anything, if the mainframe ecosystem doesn’t adapt, it will die. This isn’t surprising—adaptation is demanded of anything that wishes to survive. Fortunately, many things are capable of adapting—and the mainframe has continually adapted for the past 50 years!

Of course, anyone working in mainframe knows this. Today, 1.5 million transactions are executed on the mainframe every second of every day, making it the most powerful and reliable compute platform in the world.

How Legacy Technologies Adapt

Let’s look at other “legacy” technologies that continue to adapt.

Ships have evolved from wood and sails to iron, from steam to coal to oil, all the way up to aircraft carriers that are nuclear powered. Even with the advent of aircraft, ships continue to sail the oceans and remain a vital economical link. This is possible due to innovations not only in how ships are run, but in things like containers used to make handling cargo more efficient.

Railroads are a similar example. They continue to serve as means of transportation for people and goods, even when there are more “modern” alternatives. Railroads have adapted to the environment using new technologies that have saved them from extinction.

The last example I’d like to give is the B-52 bomber which was first produced in 1952, last manufactured in 1962 and scheduled to remain in service until at least 2045. How can this be? Steady improvements have increased the capabilities and reduced the staff needed to run missions. They remain a vital, economical military platform because they have evolved.

Is the Mainframe Adapting?

I suggest that the mainframe is more similar to these examples than to punched cards. Steady improvements in performance and software have kept it vital. Its applications have been honed over the years and contain vital business knowledge and functions.

If we stop now and don’t open up the mainframe to new technologies, to DevOps, to REST APIs, if we choose to not evolve the mainframe’s culture, processes and tools, then yes, the mainframe will die.

But the choice to help the mainframe adapt is there, and it’s ours to make. The path is clear; the innovations are ready. We must continue to adapt the mainframe environment and keep this vital platform on its upward evolutionary path.

Photo: patriziasoliani