Recently I'm encountering these two terms frequently Mainframe & Workstation. How are they different from the computers we use? I tried wiki articles but couldn't understand.

Also Terminal means just the command prompt (it's not hardware), right?

I guess these terms were used in olden days.

  • 5
    I like it that something from 20 years ago is called the "olden days".
    – ChrisF
    Feb 17, 2010 at 22:40

4 Answers 4


Mainframe was a large computer designed to be used by multiple people at the same time. It accomplished this by having several terminals plugged in via serial ports. And yes, they were physical terminals.

The terminals were incapable of doing anything other than display data that came in through the serial port and sending back data from the keyboard.

A workstation is what we're used to today. It's a computer which supports a single person, but is connected to other computers over a network.

  • Also, the word "Terminal" meaning "command prompt" comes from those old physical terminals, as the "terminal" command prompt/command-line interface kind of acts like an old terminal (although no longer connecting to a mainframe per se, instead connecting to your own local workstation as if it were a mainframe).
    – Keithius
    Mar 20, 2011 at 19:47

In "olden days" terms, a workstation would have been a minicomputer, smaller than a mainframe but larger than a microcomputer. Nowdays a workstation is more or less a powerful microcomputer with lots of memory and fail-safe components.

A mainframe today is a multi-component computer (diverse CPUs, for example) to run services (server-style) for things like banking transactions and online commerce.

Of course my explanations can't be as accurate as Wikipedia's so try to hit the online free encyclopedia for more information and examples both from the old days and today.

  • One should however be careful not to equilize mainframes and supercomputers ... mainframes are growing rather rare today.
    – Rook
    Feb 17, 2010 at 22:40
  • Mainframes are not rare at all. IBM is making tons of money selling them: infoworld.com/t/servers/… Oct 17, 2011 at 14:02

Mainframe computers are used to host servers, services, etc. A person only really logs into a mainframe to do maintenance or install new services. Workstations are computers that users will use to do work (or technically play).

Mainframes are large, contain a lot of ram, cpus, potentially network connections, etc. They are very powerful and are expected to handle a lot at one time.

Work stations are made to handle one user at a time, are less powerful, can fit into a lab or a cubical, etc.


The more modern meaning of workstation is a higher end computer, often used for graphics works, or other intensive tasks. They're typically made of more reliable components, often with Xeon/Opteron processors, ECC memory and RAID, as well as having the commercial graphics cards (Nvidia's Quadro range and ATI's FireGL cards).

However, it can be used more generally to refer to a standalone PC, rather than a thin client/terminal.


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