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May | 2013 | A. Michael Marsh

Monthly Archives: May 2013

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Writer’s Research Protip — Don’t Hack the Mainframe

If you’ve ever worked in a field that gets represented at times through popular mediums such as television, movies, or books, there are going to be finer points that you’ll notice the writers are getting wrong.

You probably know what I’m talking about.  If you were in the military and you see people in a movie doing something that would’ve gotten you murdered by your squad leader, it makes you cringe.  If you’re a police officer and you read a novel where the detective routinely does things no self-respecting cop would do, it probably takes you out of the story.  For me, one of those sore spots is information technology.

A couple weeks ago I watched all five seasons of Fringe (don’t judge me).  I really liked the show, but in some of the earlier seasons they kept repeating a phrase that comes up in popular fiction.  A phrase that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and kills some of the fun of the story.  Several times, members of the Fringe team directed each other to, “Hack the mainframe.”

If you are a writer, or other creative professional involved with storytelling, please use caution when invoking this admittedly awesome sounding phrase.

The thing is, a mainframe computer system may not be what you’ve been led to believe it is.  Mainframes are large, powerful, computers that have been used by businesses for decades.  When most characters in popular TV and movies say “hack the mainframe,” they’re referring to activities that a mainframe really wouldn’t be used for.

For example, let’s say our heroes are tracing the source IP of a criminal, or they’re trying to get into the confidential files of a doctor who’s a suspect in a case.  Maybe they’re trying to get a customer list from a website.  Regardless, in almost all of these cases, the writers would have been better off just using the generic term “Server” instead of mainframe.  Server is a label given to a computer which has the task of holding (serving) information for others to use.  Using this term will be much more accurate, and it can apply to very wide variety of computers.

The other issue is that mainframes have been in declining use for decades.  These computers are tanks.  For the most part they are powerful, reliable, and secure.  Unfortunately, they’re very expensive and lack the scalability of many modern midrange, distributed computing systems.  Because of this, most new technology companies and businesses wouldn’t have a mainframe in their datacenter.  It wouldn’t make sense for them to purchase older, expensive technology like that.

I know, saying, “Hack the mainframe,” sounds wicked sweet.  I agree.  So, if you really want to use this term, use it in a situation that would be more believable.  Mainframes would be used more commonly by old, monolithic corporations such as large banks/financial institutions, airlines, and governments.  If your characters are after data that is contained on a mainframe, it would likely be information (records of some type) stored in a database.  To hack in, your computer-whiz character should also have a working knowledge of zOS administration and older technologies such as JCL, Cobol, and C.  These technologies aren’t taught very often in today’s computer science programs, so keep that in mind as well.

That’s all.  I hope this helps out another writer while they’re crafting their next amazing story.