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2/13/2012
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NASA Shuts Down Its Last Mainframe

Space agency shuts down last IBM Z9 computer at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

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NASA has ended a significant chapter of its IT history by shutting down its last remaining mainframe computer, an IBM Z9, according to its CIO.

"This month marks the end of an era in NASA computing," NASA CIO Linda Cureton said in a blog post Saturday of the powering down of the agency's last mainframe at Marshall Space Flight Center.

The early stalwart of the data center--once the size of "Cape Cod" but now the size of "a refrigerator," according to Cureton--allowed NASA to solve complex computational problems for space flight back in its heyday.

But now the legacy systems--which were known for their security and ability to process bulk data transactions quickly--have been replaced in many cases by smaller, faster and cheaper high-performance Linux and Unix systems that are more scalable and easier to manage.

[ For more background, see Government's 10 Most Powerful Supercomputers. ]

For instance, IBM--the leader in the mainframe market with more than 90% share--now promotes its Blue Gene system for computer modeling and simulations that mainframes previously would help research agencies such as NASA to perform.

In her post, Cureton waxed nostalgic for the dinosaur of the data center, reminiscing about her work as an early programmer on the mainframe platform in her first job at the NASA Goddard Space Center.

"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," Cureton said.

As she pointed out, however, "all things must change," and NASA is no longer in need of the legacy system that helped the agency in the early days of its space program.

That doesn't mean mainframes aren't still a valid computing platform, Cureton added.

"Even though NASA has shut down its last one, there is still a requirement for mainframe capability in many other organizations," she said. "The end-user interfaces are clunky and somewhat inflexible, but the need remains for extremely reliable, secure transaction oriented business applications."

Indeed, although IBM has shifted its HPC focus, its mainframes still support business-critical applications for many Fortune 1000 companies.

How 10 federal agencies are tapping the power of cloud computing--without compromising security. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek Government supplement: To judge the success of the OMB's IT reform efforts, we need concrete numbers on cost savings and returns. Download our Cloud In Action issue of InformationWeek Government now. (Free registration required.)

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