On April 7, 1964, IBM announced the Systems/360 family of mainframes. “System/360 represents a sharp departure from concepts of the past in designing and building computers,” said IBM’s then chairman and CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. “It is the product of an international effort in IBM’s laboratories and plants and is the first time IBM has redesigned the basic internal architecture of its computers in a decade. The result will be more computer productivity at lower cost than ever before. This is the beginning of a new generation - not only of computers - but of their application in business, science and government.”
In April of 1964 I was a second year college student at the University of Chicago, working part time at the university’s computation center, which used IBM computers. I still remember attending a presentation on the announcement given by a visiting IBM executive. Over the next several years I used high-end models of S/360 for the physics calculations I was doing as part of my doctorate studies. My thesis sponsor, - Chicago professor Clemens Roothaan, one of the early leaders in computational sciences, - was consulting with IBM on the design of future versions of S/360, and I was also involved in some of this work. This relationship with IBM researchers led to my joining the computer sciences department at IBM’s Watson Research Center once I finished my studies in 1970.
I was closely associated with mainframes through most of my 37 years in IBM. I was involved in a number of research initiatives on the future of large systems. After moving to the large systems products divisions in the mid 1980s, I worked on the evolution of mainframes to CMOS-based microprocessors and parallel architectures. Later in the 1990s and 2000s I worked closely with the mainframe teams as they supported the Internet, Linux and other emerging initiatives I was involved in.
Having lived through the near demise of mainframes in the early 1990s, - which would have inevitably led to IBM’s own demise, - their ability to have survived after all these years is truly impressive. A look at the IT industry over the past several decades will reveal the large number of once great products and companies that are no longer around. Few computer families could trace their vintage to the 1980s, let alone the 1960s. There is something pretty unique about the mainframe being not only alive but doing so well after all these years.
Why is the mainframe still around, celebrating its 50th birthday last week? What enables it to keep reinventing itself while embracing the latest technologies, including the Mobile Internet, Cloud Computing and Big Data? In a world where product life-cycles are measured in web years, what can we learn from the mainframe’s rather unique longevity?