April 19, 2007

Mainframe Security Still High Card In Security Deck

I had the good fortune to attend a briefing from IBM on their latest security announcements for their Z Systems. It’s been a really long time since my last encounter with mainframes. In fact it dates back to my first iteration as analyst way back in the 1980s, the days of 35 MM projectors and 5 ¼” floppy disks. My first encounter goes back even further than that.

In those days there weren’t very many alternatives to mainframes and many of us cut our teeth on programming by punching holes in cards and eagerly waiting for reams of printouts on very large sheets of bar laden paper. The first computer I ran was an IBM 1130 for Chrysler. About the size of an attorney’s desk, it had three huge plastic discs, a card reader and a very impressive, loud, and dust generating 1403 Printer. It could do only one thing at a time with a Star Trek like cluster of green lights flashing away and one great big green light which, as I recall, said simply ‘run’. I remember sitting at the console doing some of my MBA homework when the Dodge Division Regional Manager came in – they were Gods in the Regions and this one in particular terrified many of my colleagues. “Larry why aren’t you working? Why are you just sitting there reading a book?” he bellowed at me. “Mr Robbins”, I replied “as long as this little green light is on, this little machine is working its little heart out and so am I.”

The mainframe was the workhorse for Chrysler and its safety net. When I accidentally erased all of the vehicle sales for a particular month by punching the wrong number in the month column, the IT guys and gals in Detroit came to my rescue and retransmitted the files. Ah yes, I’ve always been quite fond of mainframes.

In some ways it was gratifying to know that they are still cranking away and that IBM has evolved the mainframe architecture to be as relevant today as back then. The briefing was an eye opener for me. I was especially intrigued by the notion of a specialty engine and how this architecture contributed to optimizing the encryption process. End to end encryption in the IPSec world is important and may, over time, evolve to be the standard for sensitive data such as personally identifiable data. Consequently efficient encryption, without the sacrifice of bandwidth or thruput speed is essential.

I was also quite impressed by the attention given to Linux. I had always assumed that Linux was a creature of servers and PCs that had outlived their usefulness a generation or two ago. Ever mindful of new marketing approaches, IBM touts that mainframes are really green frames because according to them “the IBM System z9 Enterprise Class (EC) may provide up to 4 times the same work in the same space and may provide up to 12 times the work for the same power consumption.”

So as I sit here learning the ins and outs of my new Dell Vista laptop I take comfort in the fact that there are mainframes snuggling in their data centers just cranking away as they’ve done for 40 years.

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