Last week IBM held a “Mainframe 50” birthday celebration in New York City. While I wasn’t able to attend in person, I watched the live stream in its entirety along with thousands of others. If you’re interested in enterprise IT architecture and its future, I recommend watching at least some of the broadcast, particularly John Kelly’s (IBM Research’s) glimpse into the future.

There were a few bits I disliked, so let’s get those out of the way:

1. The event started at 2:00 a.m. in Singapore on April 9, 2014. No, you can’t please everyone, but 2:00 p.m. New York time on April 8, 2014, was a puzzling choice to celebrate the 50th birthday of the IBM mainframe, announced on April 7, 1964. (Never mind that IBM didn’t actually ship its first System/360 machines to customers until about 12 months later in 1965.) Thank goodness for replays so that I could pay closer attention to the details.

2. I wish I could have learned a bit more about why and how IBM’s zEnterprise is helping to fight the transmission of HIV from mothers to newborns in Africa.

3. With one significant exception I discuss below, I thought IBM could have had better product announcements to discuss at the 50th birthday party.

4. There were too many apologies and near apologies about age. In particular, there is no meaningful analogy to draw between 50 years of lineal mainframe application compatibility — an information technology and business triumph! — and the age of a human being. I would have drawn contrasts in any such attempted comparisons, not parallels. The fundamental financial industry business process rules concerning debits and credits are timeless and have no relationship to human lifespans. We’re all mortal, but application platforms supporting mission-critical core enterprise business processes based on timeless, foundational principles ought not be mortal. Big difference!

Those quibbles aside, I liked (a lot):

1. The customers. As is often the case, the customers brilliantly outshone IBM. Rightly so. I was seriously impressed when Anthony DiSanto described how (and why), within 6 months, Citibank replaced all the mainframes they had everywhere in the world — and they had/have many — with brand new mainframes, and with nobody having any idea when they did the work. “I can’t replace one blade server in 6 months,” he said, closely paraphrasing. Great point. Citi routinely performs heart and lung replacement surgery while the patient (their bank) runs its marathon, metaphorically speaking. It’s still an amazing feat I regard with a mixture of awe and admiration, and it’s what mainframes (and their people) do superbly and routinely. DiSanto also revealed that Citi is working with IBM on a “Bank in a Box.” Jim McCarthy from Visa and the other featured customers were also great. More, please.

2. The future of mainframe technology. John Kelly handled most of that mission. When you take a look at the video, take a close look at the chart Kelly showed with several cutting edge technologies specifically named. He also spent a major part of his talk explaining how past and current IT architectural practices involving extracting and moving data to processing are increasingly not viable. They simply don’t scale, especially when trying to solve many “Big Data” problems, securely. They never will given the surge in data volumes and the limits of physics. The common thread is that IBM is redoubling its efforts to move the processing to the information rather than the other way around, and the ultimate expression of that design philosophy is the IBM zEnterprise and its future iterations. Consequently most of the cutting edge and future technologies he listed on that #1 most important chart relate to continuing, significantly improved deliveries based on that core design philosophy. I think he’s spot on.

3. Relatedly, IBM announced (or highlighted?) Veristorm’s zDoop, i.e. Hadoop for Linux on zEnterprise. zDoop is a specific example of IBM’s vision, and it’s here now. In my view zDoop was the most important product-related announcement at “Mainframe 50.”

4. Hello, Africa! It’s obvious from “Mainframe 50” that IBM is investing heavily in Africa and that zEnterprise infrastructure will figure prominently. I think that’s smart. It’s presently difficult to do business in Africa, and one has to be extremely patient, working diligently with businesses and governments over extremely long timescales. Africa’s development story is only just beginning, and it will take many decades to unfold. Africa is a good fit for IBM and for zEnterprise in many respects. If you’re considering an internationally oriented enterprise IT career, at least don’t rule out Africa as a place to spend some time developing and sharing skills.

Overall, well done, IBM. I’m definitely looking forward to the next 50 years, and I intend to be walking on this planet to the 100th birthday party.

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