Nestled in the heart of Banff National Park in Canada, 200 meters up the side of Sulphur Mountain from the Banff townsite, is one of my favorite places on Earth: the Banff Upper Hot Springs
. The 1883 discovery of this sulphur-scented, geothermically heated water, previously know only to local first nations, became the genesis of the entire Canadian national park system.
Growing up in the Canadian Rockies, I went to high school in Banff, where I took my first computer science course. This naturally beautiful context informed my personal and professional development, and gave me a wealth of perspectives and images that I’ve applied in every area of life, including mainframe computing. The hot springs were a key locus of my reflections.
My life-long love of these springs began when I was an infant. I have many memories as I grew up of immersing myself in the very warm waters year round, and sculpting my frozen hair on brutally cold and snowy days when only my face and scalp rose above the water’s warm embrace. On pleasant summer days, I remember standing on the pool deck and looking down the mountainside into the townsite in the valley. On similarly clear days, I could also remain in the water and look up and across the valley to see the backside of the iconic Mount Rundle.
What I couldn’t easily do in this idyllic pool is to gaze straight out and down into the valley due to the deck and fence interrupting the line of sight. However, there are other pools in the world that lack this limitation: infinity pools, which are full right up to their brims and have no obvious edge, so they seem to invisibly transition to the distance beyond.
In my mind, the concept of infinity pools combines seamlessly with my Banff Upper Hot Springs experience, bringing associations with the womblike security and weightless comfort of a therapeutic hot springs immersion plus the ability to look off into the distance with no transition from near to far.
What is a pool? We use that term in a wide range of contexts, from collecting money or bets (leading to the name of a certain Marvel anti-hero) to grouping of related available resources (e.g. storage pools) to classical liquid locations. You could say it’s a way of bringing together a relevant amount of a commodity.
However, there are times when a pool is not enough, no matter how deep. This was the dilemma that organizations faced in the early days of computing, when price, availability and architectural limitations meant that there was never enough primary storage (memory) or other resources for business requirements.
The answer? Virtualization: making a computer conceptually seem to have more resources than are actually available, causing the margin between near and far to become invisible. This is similar to the experience of looking past the edge of an infinity pool and seeing the ocean, as if the two were one.
This far-sighted perspective, which caused external storage to virtually expand internal storage, was not limited simply to kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes and beyond. Before long, one computer could act like it had multiple virtual storage address spaces, or even many entire virtual machines, running inside a single computer. By the early 1970s, all of these technologies were firmly established on the mainframe. But it would be a mistake to think that such memories embody the limits of virtualization’s virtues.
To the Mainframe, and Beyond
It’s hard to believe that the IBM System/360 mainframe was less than a decade old when all of these far-seeing innovations became part of the platform. By this time an extra 10 degrees had been added to the 360-degree circle embodied in the original name, which could be seen as rising beyond an already infinite loop. System/370, which, logically, was eventually succeeded by System/390 in time for the beginning of the last decade in the millennium, saw the adolescent years of the mainframe, not to mention the concurrent rise of commodity consumer computing on non-mainframe platforms ranging from Apple and IBM PCs to UNIX-based systems.
Adolescence is an appropriate time to be seeing apparently limitless possibilities as one looks to the future. When you’re young, it can feel like you’ll live forever. That’s virtualization: taking your finite resources and treating them like they have no horizon in order to achieve results that exceed apparent limitations. Just like relaxing in an infinity pool, what starts out as a notion can easily lead to an ocean.
But sometimes, when you think without limits about limitless prospects, especially while building on solid foundations of responsibility, something amazing happens: You make your next steps last. And last. And last.
In other words, we virtualize time. So, when IBM, in architecting a platform for the future, made a promise that any programs written for any System/360 machine would run on all S/360 machines and their successors, and then went to work keeping that promise, they opened up a doorway to the future that has remained open, while other platforms have come and gone and often had to sacrifice legacy compatibility just to survive.
“Legacy: a gift of value from past generations.” “‘Legacy:’ code for, ‘It works.’”
It’s so funny that cyber-snake-oil sales people have had so much success painting legacy as a negative in technology, when, in every other field that has been around long enough to accrue any kind of wisdom, tried-and-proven beats new-and-untested. But, of course, that is also part of maturing, as we take those risks that turn out to be “too good to be true,” and learn the lessons that our forebears left for us about the value of insisting on quality.
Another major misperception is the idea that somehow legacy and innovation are incompatible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Innovation implicitly relies on context, and context is made of legacy. When you hear of an innovation being “before its time” it’s because the context isn’t ready for it yet, and so there’s no capacity for the innovation to succeed. But a solid legacy with unlimited capacity for innovation—well, that’s when I repeat my assertion (see my last article
) that the better you get, the more room you have for improvement.
And that is certainly one of the beauties of the IBM Z platform: it’s not just a tunnel from the past, but a cornucopia that expands endlessly into an abundant future, while other platforms that are built on slight foundations are constantly redefined and displaced.
Growing up in Canada, one of the films that I often watched in school was a half-hour National Film Board movie entitled “Paddle to the Sea”
about a hand-crafted model canoe that was designed to take a voyage to the ocean as gravity and melted snow and other factors enabled it to proceed, starting just north of Lake Superior and emerging into the Atlantic Ocean after an eventful journey.
There’s something about our history and psyche that treats the ocean as an ultimate unknown destination. Yet, the seas themselves have become the conduits of history, rather than just an unknown future state where infinity and finality merge. So, what start as local aspirations, without set limitations, have often become our pathways to a global future.
Likewise, as the warm water of the Banff Upper Hot Springs is regularly refreshed from its geothermic source, the old water drains off and eventually finds its way to one of the seven seas and the clouds.
So, whether I’m immersed in those hot springs and looking at the snow atop the encompassing mountains, or in an infinity pool looking out to sea, I’m participating in the cycle of the same water that I feel surrounding me and see in the distance.
In the same way, as I sit down and write my Rexx programs, or recall a migrated file from tape to DASD, or access CICS through a smart phone app to manage my pool of funds, I’m participating locally in an ever-expanding vision for quality computing that has become an increasing part of humanity’s bright future. And as I look off into the ceaseless seas of future functionality, including cloud computing, I recognize that from my local position I’m participating in a virtual future that is ever more real.
And that is worthy of limitless reflection.