Whether talking about HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the so-called “mainframes” from Tron or the cartoon series ReBoot, the planetary computer system from Forbidden Planet, or any number of other pop culture references to massive computers, sometimes referred to as mainframes, it can be easy to turn a blind eye, laugh, and say, “Yeah, that’s just Hollywood.”
But as many segments of society have discovered over more than a century since pop culture came to include the movie industry, these references, no matter how misleading, are highly influential even on the decision makers who choose tomorrow’s business technology architectures.
One could spend numerous pages — books — trying to catalog all the pop culture errors and correct them, and a small number of people might even read such a massive collection. But, perhaps a more constructive approach could be to find how a selection of pop culture references — especially in the movie and TV worlds — have given us tropes that we can nudge in the right direction.
I invite comments and discussion on this article, as you certainly will think of some additional examples of tropes, references, and constructive ways to correctively construe them. Here are my top 10, submitted for your processing.
10. The Mainframe Contains a Virtual, Graphical Universe
Whether being sucked into the mainframe, as in the Tron movies, to discover a digital, graphical universe or having the activities concerning the mainframe’s processing depicted as cartoon actions, as in the TV series ReBoot, the idea of portraying the inner workings of a mainframe as not just analogously but actually a visually compelling environment has often entertained the public.
Of course, trying to find a visual depiction of what actually goes on in a mainframe can be more challenging, since it’s literally like rocket science (it grew up with the Apollo space missions). Fortunately, the IBM Z ecosystem, beginning with IBM themselves, provides a wealth of visual illustrations, from teardowns of actual mainframes and their components (see CPU Galaxy video below) to illustrations of the nature of the latest technology (see GlassHouse Systems video below).
9. The Mainframe Has a Malevolent Will
Whether as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the eponymous computer in 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project, or Skynet in the Terminator series, the idea of a massive computer gaining sufficient self-awareness to decide that humanity is a threat to it is a popular trope.
Fortunately, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) so far show no uptake of immediate maleficence. Yes, there have been some rather disturbing AI chatbots that have spun up and become quite misanthropic, but at least they’re all talk and no direct access to important applications and data, such as reside on the IBM Z mainframe.
More fortunately, while AI has always been part of mainframe advancement, from early rules-based automation to significant advances in modern AI on mainframes, it is all built with a tight focus on business value, and not with a laissez-faire attitude about allowing the functionality to wander in destructive directions. Still, eternal vigilance…
8. The Mainframe Takes Up a Cavernous Amount of Space
If you’ve ever toured the Hoover Dam, you might recognize the feeling of looking into the massive control and generation area from some movies that depict similarly massive computing environments, such as the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet.
And, of course, traditionally the mainframe, including early IBM, Amdahl, and other compatible machines, has been large enough to take up the same amount of space as a living room or more. But miniaturization has affected all technology, including mainframes, with IBM’s latest offering including a model that can fit on a single raised-floor tile, what I like to call the “Cinderella footprint.”
7. A Mainframe Runs a Massive Space Mothership
Independence Day, anyone? Of course, having a massive mainframe-type computer running the biggest and most advanced spaceships is a trope that predates even the original Star Trek TV series, let alone Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Borg (if you can call their hive mind a computer).
Interestingly, the original space ships that actually worked with a mainframe had smaller computers onboard — namely, the Apollo missions that took humanity to the moon. While IBM System/360 mainframes were on the ground as part of the complete set up, smaller and comparatively lighter modules were located inside the spaceships to reduce their weight.
Of course, one could conceivably fit a modern mainframe onto an advanced spaceship or space station — time will tell whether the move to Kubernetes Linux containers running under z/OS ever finds our favorite platform in orbit or on the way to strange new worlds.
6. Any Big Central Computer Is “The Mainframe”
This is probably the most worn-out trope in popular culture, and even computer manufacturers can’t decide whether to run with it, or away from it.
Any movie, TV show, or other form of entertainment, when it needs to refer to a large computer, just pulls out this word, and adds just a little more baggage to it, usually pejorative.
Funnily enough, the only people who seem to genuinely relish the word as a complement are members of the IBM Z ecosystem — not always including IBMers, who really want you to know that it’s just a big, world-class, excellent server of any business computing needs.
Of course, the origin of the term “mainframe” referred to the main computer where frames of core memory were located. By April 7, 1964, when IBM announced System/360, the term was used as a positive reference to the primary processing device of record in a computing configuration. And there were other manufacturers of such devices.
Today, you have to go to a museum to find most core memory, and the term “mainframe” is bandied about by non-initiates to refer to everything from a large Linux server to whatever monsters might be hiding in the basements of the three-letter government agencies.
But we know better.
5. The Mainframe Is an Obsolete Platform That Needs Replacing
Many of us mainframers are fans of the “Dilbert” comic strip and short-lived TV series. That’s partly because the scenarios in it are so common to large organizations of the type that also might have a mainframe — and, in fact, we may even know people who have submitted gag ideas from first-hand work experiences (ask me about the Dilbert “no popcorn at work” plotline’s origins).
One of the things Dilbert repeats from pop culture is the idea of mainframes being furnace-like beasts sitting in the bowels of the organization and only operated by aged sociopaths.
Well, I’ll grant that a joke I’ve coined on this topic has some resonance with reality: “Mainframe: a technology that’s been around so long that it’s often operated by a crank.”
But the fact is that IBM has not only kept up with, but is far ahead of, any other platform with their latest IBM Z hardware and software innovations, and we need to keep getting the word out about this, as a new generation arrives to manage this most excellent of adventures, er, platforms (sorry, Bill and Ted).
4. You Can Design and Implant a Virus in the Mainframe
Borg? Independence Day? Bueller? (JK — if his school had had a mainframe, then his hacking would have been less successful than that in War Games.) Somehow, Hollywood seems to prefer the simplicity of designing and delivering a virus targeted at a single host, rather than intending to be virally spread. What does it take to disabuse them of this concept? A pandemic?
Regardless, the idea of being able to make a quick study of an alien platform and then create targeted malware that can miraculously invade it and make it stop working is the stuff of science fiction (with the possible exception of the Mossad).
However, we did actually have our own trojan horse on the mainframe at the end of the 1980s: CHRISTMA EXEC, a VM/CMS script that used 3270 characters to draw a pretty, text-based Christmas tree on your terminal, and then researched your address book and sent itself to all your contacts on the global IBM network that connected mainframes before the prevalence of TCP/IP. It briefly flooded the entire global IBM VM world, and everyone had to disconnect and clean up all copies of this program.
But, as far as a machine language program behaving so disreputably(?), IBM’s statement of integrity, when applied with due scrupulousness, gives the IBM Z platform a substantial advantage over alternatives, with everything from APF and storage keys to ESMs (IBM’s RACF and Broadcom’s CA ACF2 and CA Top Secret) and pervasive encryption — not to mention the dawning era of homomorphic encryption.
Still, eternal vigilance…
3. The Mainframe Is Capable of Spontaneously Evolving Advances
Similar to the malevolent mainframe myth, this take on AI suggests that the primordial soup of advanced functionality on the mainframe could suddenly turn into a growing and evolving system.
You know, this is something that might just happen under Linux. And Linux can run as a guest under z/OS. But, I call bull on any suggestion that z/OS or USS would do this, simply because they’re all business, and no one has the free CPU time or other resources to let the mainframe run free and find itself.
But, at the same time, let’s be honest here: there are constantly emerging advances on the mainframe that continue to make it the most leading-edge and functional business platform in history. It’s just that they are intentional, thanks to the amazing research and development by IBM and other members of our ecosystem.
2. The Mainframe Is Covered in Flashing Lights and Spinning Tapes
Stealth. Have you seen the chassis of the IBM Z? Sure, it’s got blinking lights, and even a laptop, on the inside. (Hey, maybe we need to revisit number 10?) But the need for lights to indicate the nature of processing taking place as demonstrated on the mainframe in War Games is long gone. And at the speed the mainframe runs, you wouldn’t see a trillion blinks a second anyway.
As far as the round tapes, well, they are part of our history. But today, many tapes are just virtual and are simulated sequential devices on DASD. Those that are real are generally hidden inside a tape library and are in cartridges that tend to be square, not on the front of a drive spinning round and round and round.
1. “I Hacked the Mainframe”
OK, I’ll admit it: “White Hat” mainframe hackers Phil Young (aka Soldier of Fortran - see https://www.share.org/blog/young,-the-mainframe-hacker-you-are) and Chad Rikansrud (aka Big-Endian Smalls) and some of their most trusted colleagues actually do this, and have proven that bad actors could.
But spare us the idea that some young kid with a home computer can just tap into a mainframe without any idea of the difference in architecture or the numerous layers of security between the outer internet and the inner sanctum. The technology and expertise are too different and advanced.
Then again, I have to admit, genuine initiates into the mainframe culture are getting younger and younger — better hope we employ them respectfully and scrupulously to keep our culture of responsibility and security!
A special thank you to Joe Gentile, of IBM, for his suggestion of this article and input on it.