In pictures: The (mostly) cool history of the IBM mainframe

IBM's iconic mainframe turns 50: In its history the IBM mainframe has been hailed and vilified. It has been born, reborn (many times) and pronounced dead. And yet the Big Iron remains a key computing resource for many large companies and will do so for many years. Here we take a look at the mainframe’s long history, from its use with the US space program to its prominence inside large business datacentres. Take a look.

  • In its history the IBM mainframe has been hailed and vilified. It has been born, reborn (many times) and pronounced dead. And yet the Big Iron remains a key computing resource for many large companies and will do so for many years. Here we take a look at the mainframe’s long history, from its use with the US space program to its prominence inside large business data centers. Take a look.

  • It wasn’t a mainframe but it certainly had the DNA. On April 29, 1952 IBM demoed the Defense Calculator which ultimately became the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machines. According to IBM it was the first large-scale electronic computer manufactured in quantity and first commercially available scientific computer. Its programs were stored in an internal, addressable, electronic memory and was instrumental in IBM's transition from punched-card machines to electronic computers.

  • But it was in 1964 that IBM began what many would consider the first true series of mainframes, the IBM 360. IBM at the time said the System 360 includes in its central processors 19 combinations of graduated speed and memory capacity. Incorporated with these are more than 40 types of peripheral equipment that store information and enter it into and retrieve it from the computer. Built-in communications capability makes System/360 available to remote terminals, regardless of distance. The equipment is supported by programs that enable System/360 to schedule its own activities for non-stop computing that makes most efficient use of system capabilities.

  • From the Computer History Museum: IBM claimed that the April 7, 1964 System/360 announcement was made to more than 100,000 people gathered in 165 cities. Here then CEO Thomas Watson makes the S/360 call.

  • In 1960, IBM’s Gene Amdahl was named manager of architecture for the System/360 mainframe. Amdahl’s challenge was to design a family of computers that would support a range of speeds and peripherals yet run the same software. The System/360 cemented Amdahl a legendary figure in the industry. From the Computer History Museum.

  • The Model 65 was introduced a year after the first System/360 launch and was first shipped -- to MIT's Lincoln Laboratory -- in November 1965. This is the operator's console on the computer's IBM 2065 central processing unit.

  • From the Computer History Museum we see the IBM System/360 Model 30 computer that McDonnell Aircraft Corporation bought the first Model 30, the smallest and least expensive of the three System/360 models shipped in 1965. It could emulate IBM’s older small computer, the 1401, which encouraged customers to upgrade.

  • Here we see the S/360 the Model 91 installed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., was, in 1968, the most powerful computer in operation. It could perform up to 16.6 million additions a second.

  • The Model 145 of 1970 was the first IBM computer using a main memory made entirely of monolithic circuits. To store its data and instructions, the 145 used silicon memory chips, rather than the magnetic core technology that had been the mainstay of computer memories since the mid-1950s.

  • Here we see the IBM computing and data processing system at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center—now called the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center—that collected, processed and sent to Mission Control information to direct every phase of an Apollo mission. The RTCC was so fast, there was virtually no time between receiving and solving a computing problem. Initially, IBM 7094-11 computers were used in the RTCC. Later, IBM System/360 Model 75J mainframes, and peripheral storage and processing equipment were used, according to IBM.

  • The System/370 launch in 1970 cemented the Big Iron’s place in business history, according to IBM. At its height of its popularity IBM said there was sometimes a two-year waiting list for the machine. According to IBM, monthly rental for a typical System/370 Model 155 having 768,000 bytes of main memory is $47,985, with a purchase price of $2,248,550. Monthly rental for a typical Model 165 with 1-million bytes of main memory was $98,715, with a purchase price of $4,674,160. "The applications of the Seventies will involve increased multiprogramming, remote computing, management information and tele-processing networks that make a centralized computer data base available to people in many places," IBM stated.

  • First introduced in 1985, Enterprise System/3090's had over one-million-bit memory chips and featured what IBM called Thermal Conduction Modules to speed chip-to-chip communication times. Some 3090's ran something called a Vector Facility that was designed to "increase the computing performance capability of the central processor when iterative or repetitive logical or floating-point operations are to be performed on many related data elements," IBM stated. Prices for larger models topped $5 million.

  • In 1990, the mainframe got a serious refresh with the 18 model, System/390 rollout. The S/390 also brought with it IBM's high-speed fiber optic mainframe channel architecture Enterprise System Connection (ESCON). IBM said the S/390 featured ultra-dense circuits and circuit packaging that allow higher performance, integrated encryption/decryption for sensitive data, extended supercomputing capabilities, and twice the processor memory previously available. Keep in mind too that IBM touted its heritage by noting that programs and applications based on the widely used S/370 architecture will run on the new systems with little or no modification. Basic purchase prices for the water-cooled models range from $2.45 million to $22.8 million, IBM stated.

  • In one of the most strategic moves IBM ever made with the mainframe, in 2000 IBM said it would begin supporting Linux on the mainframe, a huge nod to that systems growing influence. By 2009 70% of IBM's top 100 mainframe customers were running Linux, according to Gartner.

  • Again totally refreshing the mainframe family in 2000 IBM rolled out the eServer zSeries. IBM said it spent two years and $1 billion to develop the machines. IBM said the key to the new mainframe was its multichip module (MCM) -- the densest, most advanced semiconductor and packaging technology in the world. The 5" x 5" x 1/4" module contains 35 chips mounted on 101 layers of ceramic glass connected to 4,226 I/0 pins by 1 kilometer of wire. The main machine ran 2,500 MIPs on 16 processors and if clustered could handle up to 9 billion transactions/day (300 million transactions/day stand alone), IBM stated. In 2003 IBM introduced the z990 and called it "the world's most sophisticated server."

  • Here we see Stewart Alsop eating his words…"In 1991, technology writer Alsop wrote, “I predict that the last mainframe will be unplugged on 15 March 1996. In 2002, he admitted he was wrong." From the Computer History Museum.

  • The Computer History Museum has this great cartoon showing the steps required in a typical batch-processed job on a punched-card based computer system. This was typical of much computing from the 1950s until well into the 1970s, the museum states.

  • It’s not at all surprising that the US Secret Service use a mainframe but what is interesting is what they did with them. In a Privacy Impact Statement from 2012 the agency wrote of its mainframe apps: Enterprise Investigative System (EIS) is actually made up of six applications that manage the Service's investigative goal to protect the integrity of the nation's financial systems. "EIS tracks information related to financial/electronic crimes, forged government checks and bonds, as part of criminal investigations. EIS also contains information on background and approval status of applicants, semi-annual review of Secret Service informants, and individuals seeking access to Secret Service's protected events," according to the DHS document.

  • In 2012 NASA unplugged its last mainframe. Then CIO Linda Cureton wrote: This month marks the end of an era in NASA computing. Marshall Space Flight Center powered down NASA's last mainframe, the IBM Z9 Mainframe. For my millennial readers, I suppose that I should define what a mainframe is. Well, that's easier said than done, but here goes -- It's a big computer that is known for being reliable, highly available, secure, and powerful. They are best suited for applications that are more transaction oriented and require a lot of input/output - that is, writing or reading from data storage devices.

  • Of course NASA was just one of the latest high profile mainframe decommissionings in recent years. In 2009 The U.S. House of Representatives took its last mainframe offline. At the time Network World wrote: "The last mainframe supposedly enjoyed "quasi-celebrity status" within the House data center, having spent 12 years keeping the House's inventory control records and financial management data, among other tasks. But it was time for a change, with the House spending $30,000 a year to power the mainframe and another $700,000 each year for maintenance and support." Pictured here is the power switch to mainframe computer that had first been installed in 1996.

Show Comments

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?