Is it Mainframe time again?

by Frank 22. January 2012 13:04

We have all suffered and suffered from network issues and outages and failing servers. One reason is the unparalleled complexity of Microsoft server-based networks and the other is the very low availability of really talented, knowledgeable and capable server and network specialists. The core problem is complexity; if the environment wasn’t so incredibly difficult to setup and debug we wouldn’t require so many really clever people.

Even large enterprises, presumably with all the resources they need, are not immune. We have all seen and suffered from major outages at banks and airlines in 2011. If the big guys with all the money and resources can’t keep their networks up and running what chance do the rest of us have?

If it seems too complex it is too complex.

The level of complexity now bedevilling most of us has slowly crept into our business and home systems since the early days of networks and servers starting around 1980. Whereas there were some weird and hard to configure networks in the early days the offerings thinned out as the market made up its mind about standards and we were eventually left with mainly Microsoft-driven networks from about  1990 onwards. These same Microsoft Windows driven networks have gotten a little more complex year on year until they are now almost unmanageable by ‘ordinary’ IT personnel.

As always the industry counters by proposing more and more training and certification. In other words, let’s not solve the complexity problem let’s instead address the symptoms of complexity by throwing more money and time at it. All the while the problem is getting worse and there are fewer and fewer people who really understand it. We don’t have a skills shortage; we have an overly complex environment to manage.

There is another serious problem and that is security. The Internet has exposed more evil and people of ill purpose that ever existed in Sodom and Gomorrah. These evil people are able to penetrate our networks because the networks are too complex. Windows is too complex, way more complex than it needs to be. Every time we plug a hole we open two more because of the complexity of Windows. Battling evil is a never ending task and a losing battle because we cannot win using the current tools we have. In my opinion, there is no way we can ever make our current IT environments, and even our home computers, really secure and immune from attack.

If you want evidence that what I say is correct just look at the massive security industry that has built up around Windows. There are multiple billion dollar companies like Symantec that only exist because Windows is insecure and will always be insecure. IT security is a multi-billion dollars industry because Windows is rubbish.

I liken Windows to the tax system. The tax system has been played with and modified thousands of times over many, many years until it is now so complex that no one understands it and you need to go to court to get a judgement. The advice of a trained tax accountant isn’t enough to ensure compliance. Even the tax office can’t rely on its own advice and nor can you. The current tax legislation is not fixable; we need to start afresh and produce something new and simple replacing tens of thousands of pages with 50 or 60 pages. The tax system and Windows suffer from the same problem, the more you try to fix it the more complex it becomes and the more fragile it becomes.  To use the common vernacular, “there are holes in the tax system and Windows you can drive a truck through.”

If it was up to me I would replace our current tax system with a simple flat tax system (say 17% on gross income) and do away with tens of thousands of pages of tax legislation, deductions, exemptions and rulings. It would take five minutes to do your tax return and it would not require a tax accountant and thousands of dollars in fees. (Of course this won’t happen because tens of thousands of accountants and public servants rely on the tax system being complex otherwise there would be no need for their services.)

I would like to do the same thing with Windows. It too can’t be fixed and it needs to be replaced with something far, far simpler. My educated guess is that the crooks and the Windows security industry won’t like this proposal either; both have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. We are in the ridiculous situation the opposing parties both benefit from the system not being fixed. Is it only me that thinks this is crazy? How did we let it happen?

When I go home at night I don’t switch on my Windows PC anymore; I just turn on my iPad. It is quicker, easier to use, infinitely more secure and it provides access to all of the information I require. I do have to switch on my Windows PC at least once a month to download all the updates and use up large chunks of my broadband GB allowance. This process also wastes many hours of my time for no discernible benefit other than to ‘protect’ me against the latest round of attacks from the army of crooks on the Internet.

Multiply the time I spend keeping my PC up-to-date to avoid the crooks by the hundreds of millions of Windows users around the world and you have the largest single productivity black hole the world has ever seen (and the largest chunk of unpaid work). Now add all the time government agencies and corporations spend keeping Windows up to date and battling the crooks and you have enough wasted time to probably double the world’s GDP output. Again, is it just me that thinks this is a stupidly ridiculous situation and a massive waste of manpower?

I have over twenty years’ experience programming, supporting and managing mainframes so I have a little knowledge of this genre of computers. Most people think mainframes are dead but I assure you they aren’t. There are still mainframes out there and they are still doing what they have always done, quietly, efficiently and securely processing huge numbers of transactions and rarely failing. The following Wikipedia link provides a good introduction to modern mainframe computers:

I think we need to reconsider the path we have taken with both network servers (and clusters) and home PCs. We need to move away from Windows before it starts consuming 25 hours out of every 24.

Microsoft isn’t going to fix Windows, it is going to ‘improve it’ with even more features and functions and complexity, just as it has done year after year. Microsoft is not listening to its consumers. We want less complexity and greater ease of use that’s why we all rushed out and bought iPads, millions and millions of them.

We need servers like mainframes, built to do a specific job and brilliant in doing that specific job. Similarly, we need something a hundred times simpler and less complex and easier to use than Windows for our PCs. It is time for a fundamental and seismic change in how we access and process information. We have followed the Microsoft pied piper for way too long and it is time to wake up and follow a different leader and move to a different model.

Long live the mainframe and the iPad, they could be our salvation.

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