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The Mainframe Celebrates 50 . . . Sort Of

Image: The Mainframe Celebrates 50 . . . Sort Of

Tuesday, 08 Apr 2014 09:56 AM Current | Bio | Archive

There’s been a lot of hoopla lately about the mainframe celebrating its 50th anniversary. In reality, it was one system — the IBM System/360 — that is celebrating its 50th. It was brought onto the scene on April 7, 1964.

The 360 was a major advance in “big iron” computing — and an enormous financial gamble for IBM, which fortunately paid off. By 1965 IBM had a 65.3 percent market share of the industry and for nearly 20 years thereafter, about 70 percent of all mainframes sold were made by IBM.

But the IBM 360 was certainly not the first “mainframe” computer. Indeed, IBM’s first “mainframe” computer, the automatic sequence controlled calculator (ASCC), appeared way back in 1944. Built using vacuum tubes in those pre-transistor days, it could solve addition and multiplication problems in no less than six seconds.

It was the universal automatic computer, or UNIVAC-1, that was the first mainframe for general business use, which means that it performed large numbers of simple calculations on voluminous, though quickly-accessed data, as opposed to highly complex calculations on sets of scientific data, as in the case of a supercomputer, such as the Control Data Corporation CDC 6600 of 1965.

Developed by Dr. J. Presper Eckert and Dr. John W. Mauchly of Remington Rand (which later became Sperry Rand, now Unisys), UNIVAC had been commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau, which is where the first one started up on June 14, 1951. It occupied 352 square feet, used 5,200 vacuum tubes and weighed 29,000 pounds.

The fifth UNIVAC, built for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was used by CBS to predict the outcome of the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential election. Pollsters were certain that Stevenson would win, but the UNIVAC, using a sample of less than one percent of the voting population, correctly predicted a big win for Eisenhower.

For many years, the mainframe industry was characterized as IBM (“Big Blue”) and “the Seven Dwarfs:” Burroughs (now Unisys), Control Data (subsidiary of BT Group), General Electric (sold its computer business to Honeywell in 1970), Honeywell (sold it computer business to the French company Groupe Bull in 1991), NCR (sold its computer business to Solectron in 1988, now called Flextronics), RCA (sold its computer business to Sperry in 1971) and Univac (merged with Burroughs to form Unisys in 1986).

Some might also include Scientific Data Systems (SDS) as the eighth “dwarf.” SDS was sold to Xerox in 1969, which closed down the operation in 1975.

Among IBM and all the dwarfs, Burroughs probably had the best combination of hardware and software, starting with their revolutionary B5000 mainframe in 1962. It was rumored that IBM’s head honcho, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., thought that things like artificial intelligence were “blasphemous,” and this gave Burroughs the opportunity to build interesting stuff for the alphabet soup agencies, such as the CIA and NSA.

One of their stellar machines, nicknamed “Big Bertha,” came out of their factory in Blue Bell, Pa., and made an appearance with actor John Savage (playing the character of CIA computer expert Charles Heller) at the beginning of the 1981 movie, “The Amateur.”

IBM had the better sales force, however, and the saying “Nobody ever lost their job by buying IBM computers” could be heard often in the 1960s and 1970s.

In any case, mainframes are amazing machines. You can upgrade their software while they continue to run. Their reliability is “six nines” (99.9999 percent uptime) or more.

A new, fully tricked-out IBM zEnterprise System mainframe, with its 64 “n-way” processors capable of a total of over 4,900 million instructions per second (MIPS), is equal to something like 20,000 microcomputer servers, but the whole system is only the size of a large refrigerator. A single floor of an office building holding 15 or 20 of them could probably replace all of Google, not including storage, of course.

In short, mainframes are cool.

In 1991 InfoWorld’s editor, Stewart Alsop, famously predicted that the last mainframe would be decommissioned by 1996. Well, that obviously didn’t happen. Mainframes are still used in government, banking, insurance, taxation, energy, retail and many other areas where tremendous “back office” processing must occur.

The problem with mainframes is finding people who can be indoctrinated in their arcane world, people to whom one can “pass the baton.” A true mainframe expert is a rarity.

The best bet for the survival of the mainframe is to wrap the system in layers, languages and APIs that are familiar to more pedestrian programmers. I hate to think of them as “super micros” but it may come down to that to keep them “relevant” and comprehensible to the kiddies coming out of school who have learned Java and C#.

And FYI: the term “mainframe” actually came out of the telecom industry. The “main frame” was the main distribution frame (MDF), a long steel rack in your telephone company’s central office, accessible from both sides, where all the copper twisted pairs of users’ telephone lines connected to termination punch blocks and were distributed to other equipment in the local exchange.

The old big computers, instead of having a “motherboard” also had a “main frame,” and so the term got repurposed.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.


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There’s been a lot of hoopla lately about the mainframe celebrating its 50th anniversary. In reality, it was one system — the IBM System/360 — that is celebrating its 50th.
Tuesday, 08 Apr 2014 09:56 AM
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