Mainframe computing appears to have thwarted predictions of its demise.

New mainframes and brisk sales of software intended to extend the life of existing mainframes are contributing to their longevity.

Announcing it is "accelerating the mainframe's rebirth," Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa., recently added a series of computers to its line of enterprise servers. The additions came after a 10% increase in Unisys mainframe sales in 1997.

International Business Machines Corp. also recently announced the addition of a model to its line of S/390 enterprise computers. IBM officials said more than two-thirds of the world's business data now are stored on IBM servers, mostly on the S/390, and that 3,500 applications have been developed for the platform in the last few years.

Contrary to expectations that spending on mainframe computing would decline as client/server systems gained viability, spending has remained mostly level. International Data Corp. reported that spending on mainframes is expected to remain the same at 84% of user sites, with 13% of sites expecting increased growth, and 3% expecting a decline.

Client/server systems, which spread processing tasks across a computer network, may become more widely accepted in the distant future. But Kathleen Khirallah, analyst at Newton, Mass.-based Tower Group, said banks are not interested in scrapping their centralized mainframe computer systems just yet.

"The mainframe is a workhorse for large banks," she said. "Banks still love their power and are not really all that keen to get rid of their mainframe hardware."

M&I Data Services Inc., Milwaukee, can attest to that. PC-based software it has developed, which could conceivably add dozens of years of life to the mainframe, has proven popular.

The Banker Insight software package aims to simplify access to customer information held in bank mainframes. The Windows-based software culls information from multiple bank data bases and presents it to bankers on their computer screens, letting them have more productive communication with customers.

Since it was introduced last November, Banker Insight has been sold to 28 banks. It is also available to the 600-plus banks that subscribe to M&I's outsourcing services.

Banker Insight is an example of the type of front-end software banks are using to overcome the traditional difficulties associated with mainframe computer systems, Ms. Khirallah said. Typically, applications in mainframes contained separate customer information, processing logic, and formats, she said.

"It isn't so much a mainframe issue as a software and terminal issue," Ms. Khirallah said. Banks "want modularized software that can work in a distributed environment."

True, end-to-end client/server computing-in essence, no mainframes-has yet to make its mark on the banking industry, said Mike Nicastro, vice president at Open Solutions Inc., Glastonbury, Conn. Open Solutions sells client/server core processing systems to community banks.

"For big banks the issue is throughput," Mr. Nicastro said. "I think they believe that client/server is just not ready for the volume." He added, "Some of it is just fear of the unknown. You have people who have made their livelihoods in the mainframe world."

Dawn Marceau, vice president of M&I Data Services, noted the staying power of mainframe-based computer programs, some of which have been operating for more than 30 years. "It's just mind-blowing," she said, and added she would not be surprised to see mainframes in action 50 years from now. "Financial institutions are absolutely relying on mainframes."

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