IT Management

The Chinese appear to have fallen in love with the mainframe. Why did that happen? Our investigation uncovered several reasons, historical and cultural, that could be factors. We also learned something about the Chinese and the computer industry.

History is a significant factor in the mainframe’s widespread use in Chinese industry, especially banking. At one time, China manufactured its own computers, even displaying one in Toronto at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1972, but they weren’t a significant player in the general market at the time.

After the death of Mao, China began to slowly open up to the outside world. China approached both IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in their attempt to buy the latest computer systems. (These two dominated the market at the time—IBM with its mainframes and DEC with its mini-computers.)

Ken Olson, DEC CEO and founder, was unwilling to sell DEC mini-computers to the Chinese, reportedly saying it was more trouble than it was worth. This cleared the field for IBM. (There was a rumor that HP was also interested in selling, but the Chinese weren’t buying. Subsequently, HP did quite successfully sell its servers in China. Olson's policy wasn’t lifted until much later, and by then, IBM was firmly established.)

IBM made its initial sales of mainframes into China through third-party partners, only gradually expanding their corporate presence there. At first, China concentrated on placing these machines in its banking industry. As a side note, societies in Asia are overwhelmingly oriented toward cash transactions. Banking is a huge business involving an enormous number of resource-intensive transactions. The mainframe was the ideal platform to handle the resulting massive workloads. Early success and acceptance in banking paved IBM’s way into other market segments. As what is today called “a first mover,” IBM mainframes were able to establish an early, solid foothold in China.

Another factor in the mainframe’s success in China is its centralized, top-down architecture. This mirrors the traditional structure of the Chinese government, which greatly favors centralization of function and power. This held true across the early decades of the development of the computing market. The mainframe has long been viewed as the epitome of computer centralization. Chinese business executives structure and run their businesses in ways that complement the government structure. They’re naturally attracted to this model. 

“Distributed computing,” which favored the classic, three-level computing architecture and offloaded mainframes with the servers and attached terminals sold by DEC and HP during the ’80s, had little impact on the established adherence to and preference for centralized computing architectures. The explosion of interest in distributed computing that occurred in the rest of the world never took root in China. This is true despite widespread use of PCs there.

In fact, the use of PCs (largely among the better-educated people) has become so entrenched, there exists some concern about students not learning to properly write Chinese characters. There are several ways to generate Chinese characters via Western keyboard. The concern is that, by using these techniques, the user doesn’t necessarily need to remember how to completely form the character.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government would like to see a little more “order” in the proliferation of blogs, database searches (Google), and various social applications. For evidence of this, see these published reports:

Professor Daniel Bell, writing about city planning in China (“What China Can Teach Europe,” The New York Times Sunday Review, Jan. 8, 2012), observed that, “From the outside, China often appears to be a highly centralized monolith.” Bell, a professor at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University and Beijing’s Tsinghua University, included a detailed discussion of the intense competition among China’s new cities and the differences among them that arise as a result. However, he further observed that these differences are only ones that have been allowed by the central authorities. He points out these same authorities are the ones who ultimately decide “what works and what doesn’t.” Thus, Bell affirms that preference for central control of the planning for Chinese urban development still dominates.

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