Mainframes are powerful computers that rose to prominence in the world of big business during the 1960s. Despite the rise in prominence of high-end Unix and Intel-based servers, as well as the rise of the personal computing and cloud computing, mainframes are as relevant as ever in the year 2011. In this article, we'll take a look at some of the reasons behind this, such as terminal emulation software, as well as some of the biggest challenges facing mainframes.

What is a Mainframe?

Most mainframes, due to their sheer size, occupy entire rooms with special air conditioning systems to ensure they stay cool. Modern mainframes are extremely reliable and capable of performing billions of transactions on a daily basis and, as such, are used by some of the world's biggest organizations for mission-critical functions. In fact, statistics show that some 71 per cent of the world's Fortune 500 companies -- a list including banks, telcos and major airlines -- still rely on mainframes to handle their bulk data processing.

Will Cloud Computing Take Over?

Many people have sounded the death knells of the mainframe thanks to the upsurge in popularity of distributed networks, commonly referred to as "cloud computing". Despite these predictions, one of the most important things to point out is that mainframes and cloud computing aren't necessarily opposed. After all, both are implementations of a client-server model, where data is stored, and applications are run, remotely. Both focus on the power of the centralized device, as opposed to the power being based at the user's device.

Skills Shortage in Mainframes

Where cloud computing and mainframes do differ, however, is that mainframes are generally under the watch of a business's IT department, with the mainframe itself located on company premises. With cloud computing, the server is provided as a service by an outside company, and businesses pay subscription fees to gain access to it. For this reason, many young IT students are shying away from the mainframe, worried that it may not be a good long-term career option. This is certainly one of the biggest challenges facing the mainframe in 2011, as the skills of a mainframer are not ones that can be taught overnight.

IBM Academic Initiative

The biggest mainframe company, IBM, has recognized this skills shortage and has taken steps to combat it with the IBM Academic Initiative -- a program that has partnered with over 400 universities worldwide to incentivise mainframe training for young IT students. With over 50 per cent of the current mainframe workforce approaching retirement, it's hoped that this new generation of mainframers will carry the mainframe into the future.

Terminal Emulation

Many of the world's largest organizations have been using the same mainframes for decades, and the cost of replacing these mainframes is huge. Additionally, mainframes are still seen as the most reliable and secure option for bulk data processing. For these reasons, mainframes will continue to play an important role in the future. With personal computers replacing the old "dumb terminals" that used to be utilized for accessing mainframes, the rise of terminal emulation software has allowed modern users to access mainframes from the comfort of their own operating system, with Windows terminal emulation (along with other operating systems such as Mac and Linux) becoming common.