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This is not an article on multidimensional databases, 3D rendering, or spatial databases; but rather how CIOs in IT think, based on their education, experience and professional motivations.

A good friend of mine, Pete, recently asked me how many servers does it take to equal a mainframe? He’s actually quite a smart guy, a salesman and former software engineer, but he has never worked in the mainframe business, and knows nothing about it. But it was a fair question, and I had to answer “x”—a variable. This did not satisfy him at all, as you might imagine, but that’s the truth—it depends upon many variables.

This immediately reminded me of a LinkedIn conversation from a few years back. An individual, Dan was his name, I believe, explained to a LinkedIn group, in which we were both members, that PCs were faster than mainframes. He went on to explain that the processor of a fast PC is actually faster than the processor on a mainframe. And that a migration from the mainframe to a fast PC could be accomplished successfully by a couple of smart people in a couple of months. In fact, he did this for a living at one time. I didn’t bother replying, but someone else suggested that in most cases it would take a couple of buildings of smart people, and that it would take a couple of years.

But to be fair to Dan, this LinkedIn conversation occurred several years ago, and I’m sure his successes in this area happened many years before that. In fact, there was a time—in the 1970s and before—that any company needing to do business computing needed a mainframe. In fact, even small companies, like the advertising agency in Mad Men, needed a mainframe: either an IBM 360, or any number of similar systems produced by various IBM competitors of the day.

One Dimensional IT Thinking

By the 1980s, CIOs actually were able to dump their costly mainframe systems for much cheaper IBM PCs or PC clones based on x86 architecture, and run their computing tasks on these machines just fine, thank you very much. So, in a way, Dan was right: a CIO could do that, if the organization performed only small-scale computing. Companies like that have no business running mainframe systems today, and I dare say that none of them do anymore. And people like Dan made a fortune helping CIOs of small organizations migrate from the mainframe. The important point was that processing speed was sufficient on the new systems; computing memory, capacity, reliability, etc., did not really play an important role for them.

So, for my friend Pete, in cases like that, we could answer his question by saying that a single x86 server is just as capable as a huge expensive mainframe. Does the conversation end there? Well, certainly not. And any CIO who took this example to apply to any and all mainframe migration projects soon learned that it would eventually be a career-limiting miscalculation, due to “one dimensional IT thinking.”

One dimensional IT thinking focuses on one dimension, whether it’s processing speed or hardware cost, or whatever else in the "sky-is-falling, must-solve challenge" of the day. It's wearing blinders. The problem is that in a three dimensional world, CIOs can miss a whole lot if they're focusing on a single dimension. Think about trying to figure out the mass of a cube of material by focusing on just one edge of the cube, and ignoring things like volume and density.

Two Dimensional IT Thinking

Certainly, these days, vendors won’t get far trying to convince CIOs that they can replace their mainframe systems with x86 servers because its processors might be as fast as the mainframe’s processors. However, CIOs do talk a lot about replacing mainframe systems with rooms full of cheaper x86 servers, the idea being that a large number of servers will equal what can be done on the mainframe. That’s how Google does it, and how Amazon does it, so we should be able to do it, too.

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