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In a remote corner of the Internet, art sprouts

Phil Young, Internet Mainframes Project

By Kevin Hartnett Globe Correspondent 

Mainframe computers have a kind of legendary status. A computer that takes up a whole room! It’s an idea that seems antiquated, yet also quickly evokes the rush of possibility that comes when any major technology bursts onto the scene.

Today we’re more fixated on small computers than big ones, but mainframes, which were first introduced in the late 1950s, still play an important role in our computing lives. The name is quite literal; in these machines, the primary components — the CPU, memory, data storage — do, in fact, hang from a frame. And while most of us are more concerned with finding a way to wear or carry a computer, these oversized machines continue to perform many of the most essential tasks in society.

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“They’re used in everything that matters. It’s banks, it’s the travel industry, from hotels to airlines to trains. It’s the toll system, DMVs, financial institutions,” says Phil Young.

Young is probably the most enthusiastic booster of mainframe computers you’ll ever meet. In his day job, he does “penetration testing,” which means he looks for security gaps in the way organizations configure their mainframes. He’s well aware of how hard it can be to set up mainframes properly, but he’s also quick to tout their advantages: They’re very cheap to operate compared to Windows-based systems and, once they’re up and running, they almost never go down.

After hours, Young — who’s known online as “Soldier of Fortran” (Fortran is a programming language developed in the 1950s) — is the foremost connoisseur of an incidental form of mainframe art. Every mainframe system has a login page. These are usually stark text-based displays — the kind of unfriendly screen that home computing moved beyond decades ago. The screens are programmed in a language called assembly that’s hard to work with and doesn’t provide many avenues for aesthetic flourishes. Yet even in this constrained environment, determined programmers find a way to let a little light in, orchestrating alphanumeric characters so that they come together in rudimentary design.

Young collects these designs. Beginning in 2012 he created a program that searches online for mainframes that are “Internet facing,” such that users can log into them remotely. His search program connects to these mainframes and then takes a picture of the login screens, which he displays on his blog, Internet Mainframes Project. So far he’s found about 400. These Internet-facing mainframes belong to state governments, universities (including Boston University), banks, airlines. Young explains he’s always a little touched when he encounters a login screen that includes a flourish that doesn’t need to be there.

“There might have been a requirement to put a screen up, but no one said put a screen up that looks like the university. People have spent a lot of time making these things look pretty,” he says.

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His favorite mainframe screens include one from the University of Arkansas, where precisely arranged dashes depict the dome from a building on campus, and one from UCLA where the “@” symbol is used to write the school’s name in flowing cursive. He also likes the one used by Iceland Air, probably, he says, because his dad was a pilot.

Young thinks of his collection as an art project, though the creation of it has featured at least one scary moment. At one point his search program returned a screenshot of a mainframe login page that said “DHS” everywhere. Young worried that he’d inadvertently knocked on the door of a computer belonging to the Department of Homeland Security and waited for agents to arrive at his door. Then, a moment later, he realized the computer actually belonged to the Department of Human Services in a certain Pacific Northwest state.

“I was super relieved when I saw it was just Oregon,” he says.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

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