IBM Destination Z - Group home

A Brief History of the Mainframe World

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:38 PM


Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series about the IBM’s mainframe’s past, present and future. For more, see "Myth Busting," "Not Your Father's Mainframe" and "The Next Generation."

Over the decades, the powerful mainframe platform has been silently powering the world’s financial systems, yet it rarely received the accolades it truly deserves. This series will address many of the myths still circulating about the mainframe and explore the latest generation, the IBM zEnterprise System. Because it’s best to start a story at the beginning, that’s where we’ll begin.

On April 7, 1964, IBM unveiled the first mainframe computer system, System/360. Costing $5 billion, roughly $34 billion in 2012 dollars, this computer system revolutionized the IT industry, allowing customers to consolidate all of their data and applications onto a single system. IBM defines the word mainframe as “a large computer, in particular one to which other computers can be connected so they can share facilities the mainframe provides.... The term usually refers to hardware only, namely, main storage, execution circuitry and peripheral units.”

IBM enjoyed much success in the industry prior to the introduction of System/360. Its 650 was one of the most successful computers in the 1950s, and the IBM 1401 in the early 1960s. However, the System/360, with its ability to consolidate workloads, differentiated itself from its competitors.

IBM’s computer business continued to grow in the 1970s, introducing the next generation of mainframes, System/370, and later the 64K RAM chip. This would not be large enough to hold a standard sized digital photograph today, but it allowed customers at the time to support even more applications on a single machine. In the 1980s, IBM introduced the 1 Mb memory chip, and the Thermal Conduction Module for the IBM 3081 systems. This allowed mainframes to handle more work, and protected the densest processor chips in the industry from overheating and burning out.

In September 1990, IBM introduced the System/390, a family of 18 new systems with 10 air-cooled models, and eight water-cooled models. Likes its predecessors, new technology advancements were integrated into the platform, like high-speed fiber optic channels, ultra-dense circuits, and integrated encryption/decryption to secure sensitive data.

Basically, IBM had reinvented the mainframe inside and out, reducing prices, incorporating open standards, and adding support for Linux. Still, predictions of the mainframe’s demise were already surfacing. In a March 1991 Infoworld article, Stewart Aslop famously predicted, “the last mainframe will be unplugged on March 15, 1996.” But less than two years later, IBM shipments of mainframe computing capacity grew 30 percent annually.

October 2000 kicked off the IBM eServer zSeries 900; and in 2003, the eServer zSeries 990, a $1 billion, four-year investment that set the standard for enterprise-class computing. It featured up to 9 billion instructions per second on 32 processors. Over the decades, continued advancements like these have established mainframes as the fastest, most reliable systems for high-volume business workloads. More importantly, they continued a dedication to a platform that clients could count on. Every year to two, IBM could reliably be expected to announce and deliver new mainframe improvements to meet their customers’ growing needs.

Today, the IBM zEnterprise System, announced in 2010, is the latest generation of mainframe technology. Inside are the fastest processor cores in the industry, 5.2Ghz, and you can have 96 cores on a single machine, with 3 TB of main memory. This new generation of systems has been helping IT departments consolidate their heterogeneous workloads, creating a greener data center requiring significantly less power and space.

Despite this amazing technology, uncertainty and doubt continue to flourish in the marketplace. Fear not, however, as the second part of this series will address some of these myths, and set the stage for how the mainframe has been embracing the latest trends in technology.

Al Grega is a worldwide sales executive for IBM WebSphere Software on the System z platform. Previously, he owned worldwide sales for IBM Rational Enterprise Modernization software and compilers. He has more than 30 years of experience ranging from OS development to services, marketing and product management.