'Hacking The Mainframe': What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Its Favorite Tech Cliche

What Hollywood Gets Wrong About 'Hacking The Mainframe'

The comedy blog Slackstory published "An Ode to Movie Mainframes" this week, chronicling Hollywood's age-old obsession with "hacking the mainframe." Movies most often use the phrase to mean that "the hacker can now do anything he or she wants with a given computer system." But in the real world, what exactly is a mainframe and what would hacking into it even entail?

A mainframe is just a big computer, as defined by David Stephens, author of What On Earth Is A Mainframe?, but more specifically the IBM zSeries computers. Simple as that. Mainframes date back to the days when computers were the size of cruise ships -- in the 1970s and 80s, almost every computer was a mainframe, Stephens writes.

But nowadays, most companies -- even big corporations -- don't use mainframes. The manipulation of massive amounts of data, once the hallmark of mainframe computers, can now be done by server farms -- which, Stephens writes, easily connect to other systems, cost far less money, and require less training to administer.

Some older corporations still use mainframes, since switching to a server farm is a lot of work and a lot of money, especially if, as Stephens writes, you've been optimizing your business around a mainframe computer for the last 20 years. So if a hacker is going after an old business, hacking into its mainframe would indeed be a coup, especially since the hacker would likely have to know some very old programming languages.

Clarification: Language has been added to identify more narrowly what Stephens considers a "mainframe" for the purposes of this discussion.

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