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February 13, 2012

NASA unplugs last of IBM mainframes

Here's a blast from the past. Many folks in Rochester are familiar, some intimately, with IBM's System 360 mainframe.

It was the precursor to the wildly popular Rochester creation - the AS/400.

Here's some from a piece written by Stephen Shankman for CNET's news site about the end of an era.


There was a time when IBM's mainframes were cutting-edge machines for scientific and engineering calculations.

Us__en_us__ibm100__system_360__ttw_nasa__620x350Those days began in the 1960s, when IBM's System 360 rewrote the rules of computing and before humans walked on the moon. Big Blue long since has moved its high performance commupting effoprt toward its high-end Blue Gene systems and more conventional Linux servers using Intel and AMD x86 chips and Unix servers with its own Power processor. 


Now NASA has followed suit, switching off its last mainframe, Chief Information Officer Linda Cureton said in a blog post Saturday.

"This month marks the end of an era in NASA computing. Marshall Space Flight Center powered down NASA's last mainframe, the IBM Z9 Mainframe," Cureton said.


Cureton, who once programmed a System 360 mainframe in assembly language at the Goddard Space Flight Center, came to their defense:

They're really not so bad honestly, and they have their place. Things like virtual machines, hypervisors, thin clients, and swapping are all old hat to the mainframe generation though they are new to the current generation of cyber youths...

Today, they are the size of a refrigerator but in the old days, they were the size of a Cape Cod. Even though NASA has shut down its last one, there is still a requirement for mainframe capability in many other organizations.

More than four decades ago, when NASA acquired two "super-speed System 360 Model 95 machines in 1968, IBM touted the machines' mathematical abilities.

"Both of NASA's Model 95s are handling space exploration problems which require unusually high computation speeds," IBM said. "The Model 95s are capable of computing 14-digit multiplications at a rate of over 330 million in a minute."


It should be noted that the System 360 was one of the first (if not the first) to use the reduced-size punch cards (remember those?). They were 3.6" long and I was told that was one of the reasons for the nomenclature. While in school I worked in the testing lab for the card readers, including in the climate booth where the temp could run from -20 to +95. With the high temps, the humidity was also cranked up to the point where we had to take a break every 15-20 minutes to avoid heat stroke. Amazing how far the systems have come and, yet, here is one that has worked for more than 40 years!

There are still many institutions using mainframes, and not just to run legacy software either. Use the right tool for the job... The article said the system they just powered off was a "z9":
So it was only 7 years old, max... Strange that NASA was flying >30 year old tech into space last year but the stuff they leave on the ground is retired so much sooner...

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