In the 1990s, pundits predicted that the mainframe computer had had its day. Against all the odds, the mainframe is still going strong and has learnt some new tricks — like running China's internet.
The state-owned China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) has selected an IBM System z9 mainframe to create an advanced IT platform to support the explosive internet growth of China.
Western banks and other large enterprises are heavily dependent on mainframes to run their critical business applications, most of which were written decades ago in Cobol, an archaic programming language.
But unlike the vast majority of IBM's mainframe customers, CNNIC had not previously been running mainframes, giving IBM a rare opportunity to boast of a major new mainframe customer — and in China as well..
CNNIC provides services ranging from domain name registry to allocating IP addresses. As the internet has expanded in China, demand for its services has grown. To cope with the growth, CNNIC had to regularly increase its processing capacity in piecemeal fashion by buying more Linux servers and more networking gear, until the whole system became too unmanageable.
The new IBM mainframe will replace around a hundred servers and allow CNNIC to run its Linux applications on a more manageable platform that consumes less energy and occupies less space.
IBM's mainframe business is a cash-cow and highly profitable, but it is not exactly a growth industry in the west as new customers are few and far between. These days, big businesses prefer to develop new applications on cheaper off-the-shelf hardware running operating systems such as Unix, Windows or Linux.
At the end of 2008, there were almost 300m internet users in China, giving it a penetration of almost 23%, which is slightly higher than the global average of 22%.