The very word "mainframe" summons images of punch cards and the room-size computers featured in sci-fi movies from the 1950s.
But for thousands of tech-industry veterans, the mainframe is not yet a thing of the past, even if the tools needed to run and fix the machines are slowly becoming extinct.
It's unclear just how many people out there are still programming for the old colossus of heavy-duty computing. A survey issued last month by the Cutter Consortium, a Massachusetts consulting firm, found that many large companies still house "mission-critical" applications on their mainframes. The companies' biggest concern? According to Cutter, it is finding enough skilled workers to keep their systems running.
Baby boomers who cut their teeth on the machines are beginning to retire, and younger techies have little opportunity and even less desire to pick up the knowledge in school or in their spare time. The issue is particularly resonant in the Washington area, where government and federal contractors traditionally have been among the heaviest users of the old iron machines sold by International Business Machines Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Amdahl Corp. But, the Y2K panic aside, there are strong signs that the market is eroding.
Last year, Hitachi's American subsidiary announced it would no longer make top-of-the-line mainframes. Amdahl, now owned by Japanese conglomerate Fujitsu Ltd., followed suit.
"It's hard to tell how fast the industry is moving away," said Ken Orr, a technology consultant in Topeka, Kan. "But it's not a good sign" when the biggest companies are leaving the market.
In the wake of such decisions, companies have been loath to pour more money into old technology -- and workers are shying away from standard, stale programming languages such as COBOL in favor of cooler flavors such as Java script, extensible markup language (XML), Visual Basic and C++.
Where does that leave old-timers who have spent their careers tinkering with mainframes? Not in a verycomfortable spot, says Mike Chudasama.
Chudasama, a programmer and trainer at Mainframe Trainers Inc. in Queens, N.Y., says he hasn't been able to find a consulting gig in months. His last training job was for two federal agencies, the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, neither of which is known for standing at the forefront of the tech revolution.
"I've been in this business for 25 years," he said. "I was one of those who didn't bend, and I'm paying the price. There are still places in the government and big corporations that run on mainframes, but you've got to integrate" old and new knowledge.