An IBM System/360 in use at Volkswagen in the 1970s

IBM System/360 mainframe turns 50

Fifty years ago today IBM’s first System/360 mainframe was unveiled, changing the face of computing.

The System/360 is still considered to be one of the most successful designs ever, breaking from previous strategies by using microcode to create an entire series of computers that all used the same architecture allowing customers to purchase a smaller system and then upgrade as their needs grew without having to rewrite software.

When IBM CEO Thomas J Watson Jr unveiled the System 360 in April 7, 1964, such was his confidence in the system he shut down all other product lines at the company to focus on his vision for the future of computing.

At a press conference at the company's Poughkeepsie facilities to mark the unveiling, Watson said: "System/360 represents a sharp departure from concepts of the past in designing and building computers. It is the product of an international effort in IBM's laboratories and plants and is the first time IBM has redesigned the basic internal architecture of its computers in a decade.

“The result will be more computer productivity at lower cost than ever before. This is the beginning of a new generation – not only of computers – but of their application in business, science and government."

The principle of architectural compatibility means programs that ran on the earliest IBM System/360 mainframes can still run on the latest zEnterprise System mainframes in use today, with only minor restrictions.

Mainframe computing is still responsible for the vast majority of back end processing for everything from banking to government to healthcare, with mainframe’s accounting for 1.1 million transactions per second globally. Despite the increasing popularity of the cloud, IBM estimates that roughly 80 per cent of the world's corporate data still resides on a mainframe.

Derek Britton, director of mainframe computing specialists Micro Focus, said: ““Today, 96 of the world’s top 100 banks and 90 per cent of the world’s largest insurance companies use mainframes. Its high availability, reliability, security and performance continues to set it apart as the enterprise server of choice for major organisations.

“However IT is changing at a rapid pace and often change is confused with progress. The age of the mainframe is starting to work against it. Pressured by growing demands for innovation, CIOs are obliged to look at all options.

“After all, IT backlogs continue to increase. Yet, the enduring, profound value of the applications and the peerless capabilities of the mainframe make any replacement strategy very high risk.

“And with new, efficient, modernisation technologies available to them, CIOs can look to tackle backlog and innovation challenges together, without risk, while continuing to leverage the value of the core applications and the core mainframe technology that supports them.”

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