Mainframes (often colloquially referred to as Big Iron) are computers used mainly by large organizations for critical applications, typically bulk data processing such as census, industry and consumer statistics, ERP, and financial transaction processing.
The term probably had originated from the early mainframes, as they were housed in enormous, room-sized metal boxes or frames. Later the term was used to distinguish high-end commercial machines from less powerful units.
Today in practice, the term usually refers to computers compatible with the IBM System/360 line, first introduced in 1965. (IBM System z10 is the latest incarnation.) Otherwise, large systems that are not based on the System/360 are referred to as either "servers" or "supercomputers". However, "server", "supercomputer" and "mainframe" are not synonymous (see client-server).
Some non-System/360-compatible systems derived from or compatible with older (pre-Web) server technology may also be considered mainframes. These include the Burroughs large systems, the UNIVAC 1100/2200 series systems, and the pre-System/360 IBM 700/7000 series. Most large-scale computer system architectures were firmly established in the 1960s and most large computers were based on architecture established during that era up until the advent of Web servers in the 1990s. (Interestingly, the first Web server running anywhere outside Switzerland ran on an IBM mainframe at Stanford University as early as 1990.