What Is a Mainframe Operating System?

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  • Written By: Darryl Brooks
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 25 January 2015
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Just like the keyboard and mouse are the interface between the computer and the user, the operating system is the interface between the computer and the software. The operating system acts like a traffic cop pushing and pulling data to and from memory, registers, input and output devices and the processor. A mainframe operating system simply is an operating system (OS) on a mainframe computer, a powerful device used mainly by governments and businesses to process large amounts of information and support a great number of users.

In the 1950s, before desktop computers and long before laptops, all computing was done on mainframe computers. These computers could take up a whole room and do less work than a modern laptop computer. As a matter of fact, early computers were designed to only do a single job or run a single program. For this reason, they didn’t need a mainframe operating system.

As computer programs got more complicated and computer hardware less expensive, it became more effective to build computers that could run more than one type of program. To enable this, computer engineers had to develop a way that the computer could adapt itself to a new and different program. From this, the mainframe operating system was born.


One of the functions of a mainframe operating system in its early days was reading punch cards. On those computers, not only was there no mouse, there was no keyboard. All input into the computer came from cards with holes punched in them. The position of the holes determined the data that was being input. The OS read each of these cards and translated them into the binary data that the computer understood.

This old computer input method is a good example of what an operating system does. If a computer program is looking for a series of numbers, for example, it doesn’t care where it gets them. It could be punch cards, a keyboard or voice recognition software. The operating system takes the number from the input device and hands it off to the program, which then uses it as needed.

It was in these early days of operating system functionality that aspects that remained in use into the 21st century were first pioneered. Concepts such as batch processing, multitasking, buffering and spooling were first introduced in mainframe operating systems of the 1950s. Mainframe operating systems used in systems such as those giant room-sized computers seen in old photographs are what will enable people to read Internet articles on the smart phones of the future.



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There are many types of operating systems that do a variety of tasks. The type of activities and work you plan to use your computer for will help you determine the best computers operating system for your needs. Operating systems comparison is a good way to be sure you get the one that will work best for you.

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