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Last of the mainframers: Big Iron's Big Crisis

In the Autumn of 1969, a nervous Paul Matthews sat in a government office in Canberra having answered a job ad for a ‘trainee computer operator'. The interviewer's first question: Have you ever seen a computer before?

Matthews ended up being one of a cohort of 40 to use a then revolutionary IBM System/360 mainframe, a Model 20. It had 4K of main memory, two magnetic tape drives and all data was processed via punched cards.

Modern mainframes are unrecognisable from the ones seen in those early days of the technology. The IBM z14, which Big Blue shipped to Australia in October, has up to 32 terabytes of memory and boasts the world’s fastest microprocessor, according to its maker, at 5.2GHz.

But the people that work with the machines, like Matthews, are very much the same.

While mainframes look set to run core processes within Australia's biggest businesses for many years to come, the men and women that keep them running are now "thinking of their stamp collecting" as Matthews jokes, and about to retire.

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