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IBM makes the mainframe young again

IBM Master the Mainframe contest beckons upcoming programmers

By , Network World
October 07, 2010 06:09 PM ET

Network World - IBM recently announced its sixth annual Master the Mainframe Contest for high school, college and university students across the United States and Canada. The contest is designed to get the younger set away from their iPhones and Droids and get involved with some serious mainframe applications.

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According to IBM in order to win competitors have to complete a series of extremely difficult and time-consuming tasks, mastering the inner-workings of mainframe software products, security protocols, multiple programming languages and various utilities. In the past students had three months to explore the system and complete the contest tasks. The 2009 IBM Master the Mainframe Contest drew over 3,000 students from 425 schools.

Statistics about the graying of mainframe experts and a shortage of new talent to fill their shoes are nothing new. Last year, the AFCOM Data Center Institute reported that more than 60% of IT workers with mainframe experience are now at least 50 years old.

The competition comes on as a new generation of IBM mainframes rolls out: The zEnterprise. With that in mind it's worth taking a look at key points in the evolution of the Big Iron:

The beginning: IBM and others have been working on large systems for many years. In IBM's case you can go back to its transistor-based 7090, which was rolled out in 1959. But it was in 1964 that IBM began what many would consider the first true series of mainframes, the IBM 360. IBM at the time said the System 360 "includes in its central processors 19 combinations of graduated speed and memory capacity. Incorporated with these are more than 40 types of peripheral equipment which store information and enter it into and retrieve it from the computer. Built-in communications capability makes System/360 available to remote terminals, regardless of distance. The equipment is supported by programs which enable System/360 to schedule its own activities for non-stop computing that makes most efficient use of system capabilities. The system's machine cycle time -- basic pulse beat of a computer -- ranges from one millionth-of-a-second to only 200 billionths-of-a-second."

The cement: While the System 360 may have ushered in the mainframe age, the System/370 launch in 1970 cemented it. At its height of its popularity IBM said there was sometimes a two-year waiting list for the machine. According to IBM, monthly rental for a typical System/370 Model 155 having 768,000 bytes of main memory is $47,985, with a purchase price of $2,248,550. Monthly rental for a typical Model 165 with 1-million bytes of main memory is $98,715, with a purchase price of $4,674,160. "The applications of the Seventies will involve increased multiprogramming, remote computing, management information and tele-processing networks that make a centralized computer data base available to people in many places," IBM stated.

Getting big: First introduced in 1985, Enterprise System/3090s had over 1-million-bit memory chips and featured what IBM called Thermal Conduction Modules to speed chip-to-chip communication times. Some 3090s ran something called a Vector Facility that was designed to "increase the computing performance capability of the central processor when iterative or repetitive logical or floating-point operations are to be performed on many related data elements," IBM stated. Prices for larger models topped $5 million.

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