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IBM Supercomputing Hardware

Fifty Years Ago IBM 'Bet the Company' On the 360 Series Mainframe 169

Posted by timothy
from the y'-tell-the-kids-that-today dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "Those of us of a certain age remember well the breakthrough that the IBM 360 series mainframes represented when it was unveiled fifty years ago on 7 April 1964. Now Mark Ward reports at BBC that the first System 360 mainframe marked a break with all general purpose computers that came before because it was possible to upgrade the processors but still keep using the same code and peripherals from earlier models. "Before System 360 arrived, businesses bought a computer, wrote programs for it and then when it got too old or slow they threw it away and started again from scratch," says Barry Heptonstall. IBM bet the company when they developed the 360 series. At the time IBM had a huge array of conflicting and incompatible lines of computers, and this was the case with the computer industry in general at the time, it was largely a custom or small scale design and production industry, but IBM was such a large company and the problems of this was getting obvious: When upgrading from one of the smaller series of IBM computers to a larger one, the effort in doing that transition was so big so you might as well go for a competing product from the "BUNCH" (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell). Fred Brooks managed the development of IBM's System/360 family of computers and the OS/360 software support package and based his software classic "The Mythical Man-Month" on his observation that "adding manpower to a late software project makes it later." The S/360 was also the first computer to use microcode to implement many of its machine instructions, as opposed to having all of its machine instructions hard-wired into its circuitry. Despite their age, mainframes are still in wide use today and are behind many of the big information systems that keep the modern world humming handling such things as airline reservations, cash machine withdrawals and credit card payments. "We don't see mainframes as legacy technology," says Charlie Ewen. "They are resilient, robust and are very cost-effective for some of the work we do.""
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Fifty Years Ago IBM 'Bet the Company' On the 360 Series Mainframe

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  • Re:software (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jfdavis668 (1414919) on Monday April 07, 2014 @08:20AM (#46682435)
    The problem is finding someone new willing to maintain the software. We have large systems running on big iron. The people who maintain it are getting older and fewer. We struggle trying to get someone new motivated to learn the technology. It's not an issue with the hardware, you can continue to upgrade that. It's finding someone who is willing to work in software that is no longer popular.
  • Re:software (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tom (822) on Monday April 07, 2014 @08:42AM (#46682581) Homepage Journal

    That's because the software is largely crap. I say that as someone who still learned COBOL and yes, on a mainframe, in university.

    Seldom have I been so glad to forget everything about a programming language as quickly as possible after passing the exam.

    The thing about old systems is that there are some that got lots of things right - Multics ACL and security still runs circles around Unix and giggles about Windows - and some of them were just horribly misguided (like COBOL, the programming language invented specifically so the business types had the wrong impression they could understand it).

    Computing is this strange discipline where people either take the old and with it everything that sucked about it, or reinvent the wheel even though there was nothing wrong with the old one. Only rarely do people leave the good unchanged and improve only the bad.

    I don't mean inventing a new programming language with all the best features from all the other programming languages you like - you still create a new language that needs to be learnt, will have implementation bugs early on, etc. etc.

  • Re:software (Score:5, Interesting)

    by serviscope_minor (664417) on Monday April 07, 2014 @09:50AM (#46683073) Journal

    Beyond initial pay though there is a bigger problem, job prospects. Young programmers often look at jobs in terms of how good it will look on a resume when trying to find their next job, and mainframe jobs are perceived as being resume stains, filled with buzzwords that will get your resume thrown in the bin even at another company using similarly aged technology.

    Part of the problem is targeting young programmers then: companied often do because they're cheap, can be easily bullied into working long hours and don't have a family/life outside work. Older programmers generally demand more pay and less crap which makes them more expensive.

    The other thing of course is if you can offer training and/or a mixed job, e.g. 50% on mainfraim, 50% on whatever more modern front end the mainfraim connects to, you can also keep your employees current with their skills. Quite possibly more expensive, but it may well have hidden benefits too to have an experienced programmer with experience and knowledge of the complete system.

    Either way, though it still comes down to cost.

  • Good Mental Floss (Score:5, Interesting)

    by worker17 (2525968) on Monday April 07, 2014 @09:56AM (#46683119)
    I started on an IBM 360, doing assembler coding. Still have the IBM books I bought at the college bookstore. I was always amazed how much it felt like coming up from deep sea diving after a day of coding registers, doing multiplication via shift commands and all the other great little tricks that now seem ancient history. I still find myself comparing manuals based on how well they follow basic IBM rules: you can not self-reference a term in explaining the term, the explanation must not reference other terms that are not explained or that can not be identified as precursors to the term. It was a great machine to learn on.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @10:01AM (#46683171)

    I once worked on a project for a big client, and was duly impressed that the manager had a whole case (well, half-empty by the time I saw it) of copies of MMM. He offered me one and was pleased to hear that I already owned a copy. One of the best customers I ever worked with.

    It's a big warning sign when a manager has not only not read Mythical Man-Month, but has no idea what Brooks' Law is.

  • Re:software (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jandersen (462034) on Monday April 07, 2014 @11:57AM (#46684503)

    Mainframes are not user friendly, and youngsters are not likely to devote two or three years learning something from the grannies, on a very harsh learning environment, with a step learning curve, when all their peers are talking about creating a new app and selling to Google for a gazillion dollars.

    Well, that's the problem to solve, then.

    1) Make it less difficult to learn - this is only a matter of investing in producing good teaching material and making it easily available.
    2) Make the idea of mainframes much more appealing. There's loads of stuff in a mainframe and even in z/OS, that is way cooler than the average PC crap.
    3) Make it legal for people to download and run z/OS etc on the Hercules emulator for development and study purposes after a similar model like Oracle's

    People have taught themselves Linux and Windows, not because it is more interesting, really, but because it is much more approachable; and within the reach of a tight budget. Which teenager is going to invest tens of millions in a mainframe? Make it free, like Oracle did with their database - it worked for them.

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