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March, 24th 2011
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markaby Mark Anzani

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

In 1959, the Cold War was brewing, Fidel Castro had taken over power in Cuba, and “Ben-Hur” won the Academy Award for best picture. And IBM introduced a new mainframe.

But not just any mainframe. This was the 1401 Data Processing System. The system that unleashed computing within corporations. Smaller, more durable, more affordable. The 1401 transformed a global culture of work, providing businesses with the world’s first electronic, stored program computer that could replace punched card information processing systems.

Zenterprise_hero_930x260As IBM has learned during the 100 years of its existence, computing breakthroughs often take a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes to create a system that is more powerful and yet easier to use. First, the 1401 was one of the first computers to run completely on transistors — not vacuum tubes — making it more compact and dependable. But more importantly, through innovative advances in stored programming, the 1401 did away with the complex, time-consuming, and above all expensive plugboard: the spaghetti-like array of cords and plugs that up until then told machines what to do. It also used magnetic tape for input, output, and extra storage.

These advances combined to create the first affordable, general-purpose computer–and the easiest machine to program at the time. Those features and the mainframe’s new printer, which churned out results four times faster than anything else on the market, made it possible for one machine to handle a range of tasks that businesses now take for granted, whether it’s running the calculations used in accounting or doing the statistical tabulations for risk management and bookkeeping.

Yet, while IBM designed the machine to transform business, it was still shocked by the response to its release. More than 5,000 orders poured in during the first five weeks after the 1401 was introduced — more than had been predicted for the entire life of the machine. Soon, business functions at companies that had been immune to automation were being taken over by computers. By the mid-1960s, more than 10,000 1401 systems were installed, making it by far the best-selling computer to date.

1401More importantly, it marked a new generation of computing architecture, prompting businesses to think differently about computing. No longer was a computer a monolithic machine reserved for the elite. Now, it could fit comfortably in a medium-sized company or lab. In the world’s top corporations, different departments could even have their own computers, rather than one company owning just one machine.

Indeed, to show just how flexible and practical the 1401 was for organizations large and small, IBM loaded its new mainframe on a truck called the Datamobile and took it on a whirlwind tour. From the Vatican to Senegal, the 1401 was the first computer to travel the world solving problems.

The mainframe was soon being deployed to solve novel problems and improve productivity. In the 1960s, the Republic of Korea bought its first computer, using the 1401 to slash the time it took to tabulate census data from a projected 14 years to a year and a half. The 1401 was used by the Peace Corps to carry out field operations and match volunteers with the needs of countries around the world. Within U.S. banks, the mainframe helped cut the time needed to churn out daily reports to half hour instead of three hours and completed daily savings counts in 10 minutes — a job that used to take three to five hours.

More than 50 years later, IBM rolled out another new mainframe the zEnterprise mainframe z196 server. A critical part of the zEnterprise offering — the z196 server lets heterogeneous workloads share resources and be managed as a single, virtualized system.

The new systems design combines the zEnterprise z196 Server with the new zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension and the zEnterprise Unified Resource Manager technologies. Together, these three elements create a system that can manage diverse workloads, which often require resources from different computer architectures, in a highly integrated way. At the same time, this new system can also manage diverse workloads running across multiple platforms.

A crucial part of the the zEnterprise system — the zEnterprise BladeCenter Extension, or zBX — is also being enhanced today with additional abilities. It lets specific workloads, such as Web services security, management and other Internet protocols, be processed by a dedicated appliance that offers lower costs per transaction over general purpose processors.

In the late 1950s, computers had gone through major evolutions. From the ENIAC to the Univac to the advent of magnetic tape and then development of Grace Hopper’s compiler and the FORTRAN programming, new innovations helped propel the computer age forward. These all were the building blocks for the advances made by the 1401.

Yet, what’s true then as now is that any real technological innovation comes from the creative energy of dedicated engineers around the world, the competitive juices that they spark, the breakthroughs that they make.

Mark Anzani is Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for System z. He has the responsibility for driving long term product technical strategy, as well as enabling innovative client projects involving System z.

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