12/15/2011- Who doesn't remember HAL 9000, the soft-voiced killer supercomputer in 2001: A Space Odyssey from Sir Arthur C. Clarke(1)? Directly inspired by IBM mainframes, it shows us how computing was working in those days: terminals were accessed by different users in multiple locations, all connected to a powerful central unit: the mainframe (or Big Iron if you feel sentimental). Sound familiar? No? It should. Let's see why!
What exactly is a mainframe?
First, we need to see which category of computers we're talking about. The History of Computing Project (2) provides us a simple family portrait:
To give you an idea, embedded computers are small components which can be found in any appliance (a microwave or a washing machine for instance) while Quantum Computers are experimental projects and Microcomputers are also known as Personal Computers (your PC).
Thus a mainframe is a quite powerful appliance which is designed to reliably deal with a bulk of data and, more importantly, simultaneous requests from multiple users. It's mainly used to perform such tasks as banking operations, statistics, booking system, scientific research, and so on. The users were connected through a cheap terminal, barely a screen with a keyboard. This model is very similar to how PHP (3) is built: requests sent from a browser, processed by a remote server and the result is displayed on the user's screen.
However, with the rise of powerful Personal Computers and the lack of cheap and convenient ways to connect everyone to a mainframe, this architecture has never been used at home.
The Internet and NAS: A local mainframe with worldwide accessibility
But now everything has changed! Cloud computing knocked at the door and is ready to enter your home. Actually it already did. Have you ever checked your email on a friend's computer? Stored files on a website in order to retrieve it elsewhere? Played games on social networks? All of this is part of the big thing called Cloud computing and it's ready to go even further. The Chromebooks from Google are a good example: using affordable and not very powerful terminals to access everything stored and processed online. It really starts looking like a terminal sending request to a mainframe; we're back to the sixties!
The thing is, as exciting as these new technologies are, they raise an awful bunch of questions. Do we still own our data? Who can use and see this data? How about our privacy? What happens when there is a malfunction (and unfortunately, this happens(4)!)? That's why it's always better to think of more private solutions to help you gain access from every devices you have (Smartphone, tablet, laptop, TV, etc), but still keep your data private and manageable. Needless to say a NAS server is a true asset in creating your own sharing network. it's just like having your own private mainframe!
And if you have larger and more complicated needs, you can still go for a virtualized mainframe system with software developed by companies like Citrix or VMware. In a nutshell it turns a heterogeneous network into a single uniform pool of raw capacity. When you connect a terminal, it taps into the resources available and processes everything in a very transparent way. If you want to add more capacity, you just hook up a compatible device (let's say an N12000, N16000 or more recently an N8900), configure the virtual server and everything (CPU and storage capacities) is automatically added!
That's all for today, we've learned what a mainframe is and how the remarkably similar architecture of a NAS combined with the Internet can help you at home or in the office using either basic NAS functions or more advanced virtualized environments!
2001: A Space Odyssey is, before being a very good movie, an excellent book.
Learn more about hardware history:
A very good introduction to PHP:
A case study about the Amazon Cloud:
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