Data Centers

NASA: Powering down the last mainframe

With the consumerization of IT, legacy systems are going the way of U.S. manned spaceflight. NASA shuts down its last mainframe -- a two-ton, 56 square-foot monster running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 (RHEL4).

Image courtesy: NASA

You know it's the end of an era when even NASA doesn't need a two-ton, 56 square-foot computer anymore.

Crazy! The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) is powering down its last number-crunching mainframe, says NASA CIO Linda Cureton in a blog post this weekend.

The outgoing mainframe is an IBM Z9 approaching two tons and running Red Hat Enterprise Linux. And NASA is showing it the door. At its site, IBM lists the specs:

In her post, NASA CIO Cureton found it necessary to "define what a mainframe is" for her "millennial readers." Another sign of the times. Here's an excerpt:

Marshall Space Flight Center powered down NASA's last mainframe, the IBM Z9 Mainframe. For my millennial readers, I suppose that I should define what a mainframe is. Well, that's easier said than done, but here goes — It's a big computer that is known for being reliable, highly available, secure, and powerful. They are best suited for applications that are more transaction oriented and require a lot of input/output – that is, writing or reading from data storage devices.

They're really not so bad honestly, and they have their place. Things like virtual machines, hypervisors, thin clients, and swapping are all old hat to the mainframe generation though they are new to the current generation of cyber youths.

In my first stint at NASA, I was at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as a mainframe systems programmer when it was still cool. That IBM 360-95 was used to solve complex computational problems for space flight. Back then, I comfortably navigated the world of IBM 360 Assembler language and still remember the much-coveted "green card" that had all the pearls of information about machine code. Back then, real systems programmers did hexadecimal arithmetic – today, "there's an app for it!"

Keeping the mainframe going likely cost thousands of dollars a month in storing and cooling costs, a price NASA probably can't justify in this age of ever smaller, faster and nimbler computing devices. Even so, NASA CIO Cureton says mainframes like the IBM Z9  shunting are "still a requirement for ... many other organizations ... the end-user interfaces are clunky and somewhat inflexible," Cureton continues, "but the need remains for extremely reliable, secure transaction-oriented business applications.

Somewhat inflexible?

NASA has yet to indicate what hardware it is replacing the Z9 with. I've got a call into NASA.

In the meantime, check out this picture. It's the IT equivalent of Mad Men era computing. Break out the martinis, tobacco and horned-rim glasses. Pick your poison.

About Gina Smith

Gina Smith is a NYT best-selling author of iWOZ, the biography of Steve Wozniak. She is a vet tech journalist and chief of the geek tech site,

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