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As with many people who spend too much time with computers and not enough with persons of the opposite gender, I’m a bit of a science fiction (SF) buff. Now, in my case, it doesn’t mean that I attend conventions with the opening address given in the purest Klingon, mine is but a mild addiction.

It does mean, though, that I watch and re-watch more SF films than my immediate social peers. In two recently viewed specimens there were situations of the direst consequence involving mainframes that had me at the edge of my seat.

In the Matrix (the original, not the “law of diminishing returns” sequels) all hell will break loose and the resistance will be finished if the evil computers manage to break into humanity’s last remaining mainframe in Zion.

Battlestar Galactica had a similar predicament when the Cylons had managed to get past 5 out of the 6 firewalls safeguarding Galactica’s jerry built mainframe. This started me thinking about what exactly is a mainframe.

To me, the word mainframe conjures up images of a very big computer, probably with spinning tape wheels and something that looks like a telex constantly spilling out information. Every so often, it will be consulted by someone looking like Emma Peel from ‘The Avengers’, or Dave Bowman from ‘2001: A space Odyssey’.

They will, alternately, be the tools of international criminals looking to despoil insurance policies, or will have themselves ascended to consciousness and be looking to strive for world domination. In short, I wasn’t that sure of what a mainframe was, but was pretty certain I’d know one when I saw it.

This explains why I was slightly disappointed to see that most of the definitions available were along the lines of: A big computer, made by a big company, typically serving lots of users”. For more useful definitions like this, check out this definition.

Mainframes were, of course, the mainstay of computing, from the first transistor through to the advent of PCs and decentralised networks in the 80’s. When Bill Gates said that he wanted to see a computer on every desk, he certainly wasn’t talking about mainframes, unless of course you have a desk as big as Bill’s.

Mainframes disappeared from the computing front line for many years, barely being mentioned. Magazines, and then web sites ,would be speaking about sexier, more happening solutions like Netware, NT and of course open source.

In the background, especially in bigger organisations, the mainframe was still busy beavering away handling more applications than you’d think, and probably still dreaming of world domination, if only it could get out of this small room.

These days, big computers seem to be making something of a comeback, as users have more dumb terminals, web based applications etc. The mainframe might not be in your office, or even organisation, but you’re probably interacting with one on an increasing basis.

Me, I’ve always liked the idea of my own mainframe and, therefore, world domination. Have to go now, I’m ordering my own personal big iron from Amazon.

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.