Turns out, there are a lot of people at IBM who like LEGO®. Opening the closet in my home office makes it immediately clear that I fall into this category, and with the boxes of LEGO Duplo scattered around the playroom, I'm continuing this proud, fun tradition with my kids. I didn't quite expect these interests to collide at work though. Imagine my surprise when I was listening to the keynote from Ric Lewis at IBM THINK 2023 and he happened to mention z16 made with LEGO bricks that folks could take a look at and take their picture with at the show.
I wasn't at THINK in person, so I swiftly took to Twitter to ask about it, and our General Manager, Ross Mauri, delivered.
It's not just an IBM z16, it's life-size! In the following days I saw more photos, close-ups, and was generally quite taken with what must have been an enormous undertaking. It was. So let me peel back the curtain a bit for you and get down to the story and technical details of what is one of my favorite LEGO builds ever.
To level-set for anyone finding this article who isn't aware of what an IBM z16 is, (aside from a cool-looking server that IBM commissioned build with LEGO brick), the best place to start is by visiting the IBM z16 product page.
And if you're interested in diving into some of the technical details, last year I wrote "A tour inside the IBM z16" which also links to some more in-depth technical documents.
As for the full-scale LEGO model, we can begin this story by revealing that one of IBM's marketing and communications VPs, Don Gentile, is also a LEGO fan. Don and his manager, Wayne Hickey, saw an opportunity to reach IBMers, our clients and new audiences in a fun and unexpected way.
What would it take to build a life-size IBM z16 that could travel (intact) to events? Are there people who build such things, and could they do one for IBM? That's where Graeme Dymond, LEGO® Brick Expert, joins our story. The answer to those questions was "Yes!"
This led to months of planning, sharing of schematics, and discussions among several stakeholders, including Camillo Sassano, IBM Design Principal. Camillo's name may be familiar to those who know me, as he's who I worked with to make the 3D printer files for the IBM z15 and z16 available. Camillo and his team are also responsible for the z16 design that recently won the prestigious 2023 iF and "Red Dot: Best of the Best" design awards.
If you're the numbers and bullet-point type, some things I learned while asking around about the LEGO model were particularly interesting to me:
- It was built using at least 250,000 LEGO bricks (Graeme says he lost count due to many design choices and modifications)
- It took over 500 hours to assemble
- Everything used to build it is a standard LEGO piece that LEGO produces (...with perhaps the exception of the steel frame (including drawer), which is a standard practice for these large builds to reduce weight and increase stability)
- The pieces are glued together (yes, with MEK)
But let's take a closer look! We've already seen it's a stunning system to behold in the front, but the detail continues when you step around back. Cabling? It looks pretty cool in real life.
What does the LEGO counterpart look like?
I chose the view above because most of us have a pretty good idea of what real cabling on a server looks like, but this close-up on the LEGO model was pretty fun. As mentioned above, all the pieces used are standard, and the cables were no exception, among other things, LEGO flexible tubes were used to create the cables.
Want to take a peek inside? Of course you do!
After IBM THINK in Orlando, the LEGO model made the trip up to the IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, New York. We are extremely fortunate to have IBM zSystems Test Architect & Tech Lead, Master Inventor, and social media guru PJ Catalano not only on-site at IBM in Poughkeepie, but willing to take all kinds of photos for us. He took the above cables photo, and then dove in for a bunch more!
The heart of an IBM z16 is the IBM Telum processor. For the LEGO model, the pull-out drawer (marked with blue tabs) includes a centerpiece of the Telum processor, fashioned like a fountain in the town square surrounded by LEGO minfigures going about their day.
This is one of the things I love about this project. There is the art and creativity of replicating a real piece of hardware in LEGO and to respectfully do that for both the z16 and LEGO, but then there's the creativity in building a world inside that drawer. Instead of just making a copy of an actual drawer with the usual hardware, the opportunity was taken to take components of it, like the Telum processor, and build meaningful scenes around it.
There is a lot of green, and trees, in a clear reference to sustainability.
There are people buying things with cards, in appreciation of the speed with which transactions are made on the z16, something that's of utmost important in the financial industry. Something I wouldn't have noticed was that there were a lot of people walking around drinking coffee. No, not coffee. Java. Hah! I see what they did there!
In an office scene there's a picture of a space shuttle, in appreciation for all the work IBM has done, and continues to do, with NASA.
And perhaps my favorite nod to history, there's a tiny IBM System/360, the first mainframe in this architecture's lineage, released in 1964. Right next to a mini z16.
I'm certain there’s more that I've missed here, and I will probably do a follow-up blog post once I'm clued into these things or folks have questions that I can track down answers to. So please let me know via firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions and I'll start collecting them in order to do my best to find answers.
I'll wrap this up by shifting focus to the IBM LinuxONE 4. Yes there's a badge for that too! As Steven Dickens demonstrated. It was totally the icing on the cake that the model included orange LEDs, as well as blue. And the entire inside is illuminated with green lights, just like the real thing.
We are hoping to share the model with more people at events and IBM offices throughout the year!