Monday, 25 May 2009

Sorry I missed your birthday – mainframe

7 April 1964 saw the announcement of the IBM System/360 mainframe – making it 45 years old (and a month and a few days). So, happy belated birthday mainframe. If you were around at the time, you were probably more impressed by the fact that during the week of 4 April 1964, The Beatles held ten positions on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, including the top five positions. As a side note, this has never been matched by any other artist. And the song titles were “Can't Buy Me Love”, “Twist and Shout, “She Loves You, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, and “Please Please Me” – but I digress!

It’s hard to remember those pre-mainframe days, but IBM was selling computers – and so were a number of other companies. Plus, IBM had different non-compatible and competing systems. You may about now be getting a strange feeling of déjà vu! Anyway, worse still in those days was that upgrades weren’t backward compatible, which meant users had to buy new software and peripherals in order to upgrade. Systems/360 was meant to solve these technical problems while also reviving IBM’s bottom line. The way it did this was to utilize Solid Logic Technology (SLT) – an early attempt at an integrated circuit. The other big decision at the time was for IBM to manufacture the chips and the peripherals themselves.

The other successful big leap was the development of a new operating system. This they claimed did everything and was like a circle in that it covered 360 degrees – hence the name System/360. It was the marketing team who updated it for the 1970s as System/370 and for the 90s as System/390. The original operating system proved to be very expensive and ended up being three operating systems – Basic Operating System (BOS), Tape Operating System (TOS), and Disk Operating System (DOS).

The rest, as they say, is history. IBM boasted at the time that its new hardware would ensure compatibility when moving forward – meaning that quite ancient programs will still run. Nowadays, of course, everything begins with the letter z – until that becomes old hat and something new comes from the marketers.

IBM’s share price has had some bad times, and the talk about the death of the mainframe will soon be reaching its 20th birthday. But mainframes continue to more than satisfy the needs of so many users. And all the talk of cloud computing and virtualization simply lets mainframers explain how they’ve been doing that sort of thing for ages. The mainframe doesn’t suit all customers, and IBM introduced the AS/400 and RS/6000 to plug the gaps. Which in turn led to the ECLipz project to make the different product lines from the same components. They also gave us the ill-fated and short-lived OS/2, which by way of personalities leaving IBM at the time led to Citrix the company that can virtualize Windows desktops and offer certain mainframe-like advantages to customers.

So happy belated birthday mainframe – I look forward to a big celebration in 2014 on the 7th April when it celebrates its 50th birthday.

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