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The term mainframe is given to a large computer which is capable of handling large amount of data quickly and supporting thousands of users at one time. In the hierarchy between a microprocessor and a super computer, a mainframe computer lies just below the latter. It is also referred to as a ‘big iron’ system used for large-scale computing problems which requires greater security and availability. A mainframe is about the size of a large refrigerator. They are generally used by large corporations and government organizations. The earliest mainframes were kept in large metal frames and hence the name.
The speed of a mainframe system is measured in million instructions per second. The hardware components in a mainframe system is similar to what a personal computer has (CPU, motherboard, memory) except the fact that they are much more expensive and powerful. The operating systems used in mainframes are mostly based on UNIX, and a smaller percentage on Linux as well. Mainframes have evolved from being of the size of a room to a network of servers and workstations that are very cost effective and competitive platforms for development of e-commerce and hosting purposes.
Mainframe computers are widely used for transaction processes, especially in banks, insurance companies, telecom companies, travel and retail sector. The transactions involved in flight bookings, wire transfers, credit-card purchases by thousands of people are all captured by a mainframe computer. IBM is the current market leader of mainframe computers with over 90% market share. The main features of a mainframe system are reliability (of performing according to requirements consistently), availability (ratio of time the system is active and running to the total time) and serviceability (ease of system maintenance/repair).
Mainframes do not have an attractive user interface like the personal computers. They cannot do scientific calculations and are not known for speed, but can process huge amount of data reliably.