IBM Archive

Getting an IBM AS/400 midrange computer on the internet

Recently I’ve gotten a hold of an old IBM mid-range computer, an AS/400 150. This is an 1997 server very much aimed at businesses, pay-rolling, inventory management and such. It can be used as a multi user system, with users logging in via a terminal. The operating system it runs is OS/400 and that is also the only OS it can run, no Linux available for this system. Of course it comes with all the fun programming languages like COBOL and RPG, all the business classics. It’s compatible with the IBM system/36, so any programs made for an 80’s S/36 machine run without problems on the AS/400 machines. It also looks very much 90s, though I personally like the cover at the back, hiding all ports. Stories like these are always great reads. This is the kind of hardware I eventually want to collect and play around with once I have the space to do so.

The IBM z14 microprocessor and system control design

Archaic to most people, IBM mainframes play a pivotal role in our everyday life. Behind the scenes, these state-of-the-art machines process billions of transactions every day. Announced in July of last year, IBM's latest mainframe is the z14, succeeding the z13 which launched back in 2015.

Earlier this year at the 65th International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco IBM presented some of the architectural changes between the z13 and z14. The paper was presented by Christopher Berry, a Senior Technical Staff Member for the IBM Systems Hardware Development Team. Mr. Berry led the z14 physical design execution.

IBM ThinkPad Power Series 850

So I learned something new today. Back in the early and mid-90s, IBM tried to build a PC-like platform and ecosystem around its PowerPC processor. They called it the PowerPC Reference Platform, or PReP, and with it, you could build what were effectively PC clones with PowerPC processors, ready to run a number of operating systems, including AIX, Windows NT, OS/2, and Apple's failed Taligent project. None of this is news to me.

What is news to me, however, is that aside from a number of desktop PReP machines, IBM also developed and sold a number of PReP laptops under the ThinkPad brand.

Sometime in 1994, IBM started working on a prototype mobile system named Woodfield and designated as type 6020. Very little is known about this system; it was never officially announced or sold. On June 19, 1995, IBM announced the ThinkPad 850 and 820 (announcement letters 195-178 and 195-179, respectively) with a planned availability date of July 24, 1995. The ThinkPad 820 designation was type 6040, code name Wiltwick; the 850 was type 6042, code name Woodfield Prime.

The ThinkPads 820/850 were to be available with no software or with preloaded Windows NT 3.51 or AIX 4.1.3. OS/2 was to come at some unspecified later date, and Solaris 2.5.1 support was announced in February 1996.

The ThinkPad 850 type 6042 came with 16 or 32 MB RAM, 540 or 810 MB hard disk, and 640×480 or 800×600 TFT display.

Definitely an interesting bit of computing history, and I'd love to get my hands on a working model - they pop up on eBay from time to time.

PC-RETRO Motherboard Kit: IBM clone computer

The PC-RETRO Kit Beta (Catalog #PC-RETRO) is a hobby electronics kit for building a faithful reproduction of the classic IBM PC 5150 motherboard from 1982. We have been in development on this new product offering for over 1 year. We started with the original circuit diagrams, as published by IBM in their Technical Reference Manual. These open source circuit diagrams launched the explosion in PC clone products that followed the IBM PC introduction. Reverse engineering the original IBM board was a substantial undertaking, as we found many differences between the 'official' circuit diagrams and actual board construction. Additionally, you can imagine the complexity of trouble-shooting this board and verifying the correct operation! Not to mention the logistical challenge of sourcing the original vintage electronic parts. You will receive all the components to build a PC Motherboard exactly as shown here.

At a mere $189.50 (including international shipping; $149.50 for domestic US customers), this is an absolute steal. I'm very tempted to look into getting this, but my utter lack of even the most basic soldering skills makes me a little nervous. Might be a better idea to get some soldering test kits before attempting a project like this.

Why do I use the IBM Model M keyboard?

The IBM Model M was a keyboard was first released in 1985 as a cheaper successor to the Model F. It's hard to imagine a keyboard more expensive as Model M keyboards cost a bomb even in those days but it's true.

The Model F was based on a very durable capacitive buckling spring but was expensive to produce hence IBM made the Model M with a lower-cost membrane buckling spring model. At the same time, the Model M pioneered the ANSI 101-key layout that is still in use today. This keyboard was also the first one to utilise the PS/2 connector which would go on to be in service for decades.

The Keyboard.

What it’s like to watch an IBM AI successfully debate humans

At a small event in San Francisco last night, IBM hosted two debate club-style discussions between two humans and an AI called "Project Debater". The goal was for the AI to engage in a series of reasoned arguments according to some pretty standard rules of debate: no awareness of the debate topic ahead of time, no pre-canned responses. Each side gave a four-minute introductory speech, a four-minute rebuttal to the other's arguments, and a two-minute closing statement.

Project Debater held its own.

I'd pay so much money to see prominent political leaders debate this machine.

New guts bring new processors, DDR4, USB3 to old ThinkPads

We often see people funneling their passion into keeping beloved devices in operation long past their manufacturer’s intent. These replacement Thinkpad motherboards bring old (yet beloved) Thinkpads a much desired processor upgrade. This is the work of the user on the enthusiast forum 51nb. The hack exemplifies what happens when that passion for legendary gear hits deep electrical expertise and available manufacturing. This isn’t your regular laptop refurbishment, is building something new.

This is incredible. I wish someone could do this with an iBook G4 or a 12.1" PowerBook.

An 8-tube module from a 1954 IBM mainframe examined

IBM's vacuum tube computers of the 1950s were built from pluggable modules, each holding eight tubes and the associated components. I recently came across one of these modules so I studied its circuitry. This particular module implements five contact debouncing circuits, used to clean up input from a key or relay. When you press a key, the metal contacts tend to bounce a bit before closing, so you end up with multiple open/closed signals, rather than a nice, clean signal. The signal needs to be "debounced" to remove the extra transitions before being processed by a computer.

This is so far before my time, it basically looks like 19th century machinery to me. The steps between this module and what we have today blow my mind.

Creating a Christmas card on a vintage IBM 1401 mainframe

I recently came across a challenge to print a holiday greeting card on a vintage computer, so I decided to make a card on a 1960s IBM 1401 mainframe. The IBM 1401 computer was a low-end business mainframe announced in 1959, and went on to become the most popular computer of the mid-1960s, with more than 10,000 systems in use. The 1401's rental price started at $2500 a month (about $20,000 in current dollars), a low price that made it possible for even a medium-sized business to have a computer for payroll, accounting, inventory, and many other tasks. Although the 1401 was an early all-transistorized computer, these weren't silicon transistors - the 1401 used germanium transistors, the technology before silicon. It used magnetic core memory for storage, holding 16,000 characters.

Some people have access to the coolest stuff.

IBM Blue Lightning: world’s fastest 386?

The Blue Lightning CPU is an interesting beast. There is not a whole lot of information about what the processor really is, but it can be pieced together from various scraps of information. Around 1990, IBM needed low-power 32-bit processors with good performance for its portable systems, but no one offered such CPUs yet. IBM licensed the 386SX core from Intel and turned it into the IBM 386SLC processor (SLC reportedly stood for "Super Little Chip").

Fascinating footnote in processor history.

The history of the IBM PC, part two: the DOS empire strikes

Since I abused the first part in Ars' two-parter on the history of the IBM PC for my own selfish purposes, it's only fair to use the publication of part two to actually talk about the subject matter at hand.

In November 1979, Microsoft's frequent partner Seattle Computer Products released a standalone Intel 8086 motherboard for hardcore hobbyists and computer manufacturers looking to experiment with this new and very powerful CPU. The 8086 was closely related to the 8088 that IBM chose for the PC; the latter was a cost-reduced version of the former, an 8-bit/16-bit hybrid chip rather than a pure 16-bit like the 8086.

IBM opted for the less powerful 8088 partly to control costs, but also to allow the use of certain hardware that required the 8-bit external data bus found on the 8088. But perhaps the biggest consideration stemmed, as happens so often, from the marketing department rather than engineering. The 8086 was such a powerful chip that an IBM PC so equipped might convince some customers to choose it in lieu of IBM's own larger systems; IBM wanted to take business from other PC manufacturers, not from their own other divisions.

The IBM PC and its compatibles changed the computing landscape more than any other platform, and to this day it remains the archetype of what people think of when they think of "computer". While the archetypal computer is surely changing into a laptop or even a smartphone, they've got a long way to go before they push the PC out of the collective consciousness as the "default" computer.

The best keyboard ever is back

You may not know the Model F by name, but you know it by sound - the musical thwacking of flippers slapping away. The sound of the '80s office. The IBM Model F greeting the world in 1981 with a good ten pounds of die-cast zinc and keys that crash down on buckling metal springs as they descend. It's a sensation today's clickiest keyboards chase, but will never catch. And now it's coming back.

I used several of these growing up, and I've come to understand I'm the only one who didn't - and doesn't - like mechanical keyboards one bit - I find them tiring and way too loud. I want the thinnest possible keyboard with the shortest possible travel while still having a decent, satisfying, but very quiet click. I find Apple's Magic Keyboard is the exact right keyboard for me, but I also know I'll be one of the very few, especially on a site like OSNews.

IBM AIX for PS/2

I'm pretty sure all of you are aware of Advanced Interactive Executive, or AIX, IBM's high-end, professional UNIX operating system. It has been in development since 1986, and is currently at version 7.2, released in 2015. It's one of those operating systems you hear relatively little about here on OSNews, if only because it sits in a part of the market where few of us ever encounter it.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to learn that AIX hasn't been confined to (relatively) exotic non-x86 hardware such as IBM Power and PowerPC-based systems. During my research into the IBM PS/2, I discovered that IBM released versions of AIX for PS/2 systems. The first release was AIX 1.1 1989, followed by 1.2 in 1990, and the last release, 1.3, in 1992.

From the AIX 1.3 PS/2 announcement letter:

Performance tuning in AIX PS/2 Operating System Version 1.3 offers increased throughput for Input/Output (I/O) in both raw and block mode, in addition to kernel performance enhancements and smaller size requirements available through the availability of serviceable shared libraries usage in applications written to utilize them. Enhancements have also been made to the pager and swapper areas of memory management that have resulted in performance increases.

Improvements in the windowing and Graphical User Interface (GUI) areas are highlighted with the introduction of the X Windowing System V11 R5 from MIT available in AIX PS/2 X-Windows Version 1.3 and AIXwindows Environment for PS/2 Version 1.3 and OSF's Motif 1.1.3 available in AIXwindows Environment for PS/2 Version 1.3 along with AIXwindows Desktop. Support for the IBM Xstation 120 and Xstation 130 is provided in the AIX PS/2 Xstation Manager Version 1.3 Support for XGA-2 provides non-interlaced, high resolution graphics on those displays that support it.

The internet is a great thing, and IBM AIX 1.3 for PS/2 can be found on abandonware sites, and there are some repositories with more information. The full AIX 1.3 PS/2, with all the additional packages you had to buy separately, comes in at a whopping 94 1.44 MB floppies. The installation procedure is complex, and I haven't yet been able to get it installed in VirtualBox. I want to give this some visibility, because maybe someone with more experience with AIX can get AIX PS/2 to run inside VirtualBox or some other virtualisation tool.

Rediscovering an old IBM PS/2 Model 50

Today, after sitting in storage for over 20 years, my brother and I dusted off his old IBM PS/2 Model 50 (8550-021), with the goal of cleaning it up and making sure it still works. It was still working when he stored it, so it should still be okay today (barring any unavoidable degradation caused by the slow march of time). As far as he remembers, it's got DOS installed on its 20MB hard drive (and a bunch of games).

I've taken it apart completely so that I can set to cleaning it thoroughly tomorrow. Everything seems to be in relatively pristine condition (save for the case, which is battered in a grungy, industrial kind of way). A visual inspection didn't reveal anything blown or out of the ordinary on the motherboard or HDD/FDD riser cards, and from what I can tell without opening it up, the PSU seems to not feature any blown caps either.

Originally, I was planning on just getting some cheap PS/2 keyboard and mouse somewhere (turns out none of us owns any of those any more), but the more I was awestruck by the industrial beauty and elegance of the PS/2 and its modular internals, I felt overcome by a strong urge to do this machine justice - assuming it still works, I'm buying the original PS/2 mouse and IBM Model M keyboard. It's the least I can do.

I've also been looking at other ways to expand and upgrade the device (which I'll do only after having confirmed it still works, of course). I've found an AST Advantage/2 RAM expansion/SCSI controller 16-bit MCA card (with 4MB of RAM installed) in an online store, which would be a neat way to add some additional memory to the machine. It's a multifunction MCA card that adds 8 RAM slots and a SCSI interface to the PS/2. I'm not entirely sure how these additional RAM slots work (i.e., does any RAM get added to extended memory?), but for its relatively low price, it seems like an interesting exotic piece of hardware to own either way.

There are other, far more substantial upgrades and peripherals I'd like to add to it, such as the IBM 486SLC2-50/25 processor upgrade kit (incredibly rare and prohibitively expensive if you do find one) or a math co-processor (haven't been able to find one, and would be rather useless for running a few DOS games anyway). Additionally, there are rare things like an MCA Sound Blaster or SGI IrisVision (more information) that'd be awesome to have, but I doubt I'll ever find them. I'd also love to get my hands on a matching IBM PS/2-era monitor, but I highly doubt I'll be able to find one that is in relatively good condition, close enough so I wouldn't have to ship it (dangerous), and not incredibly expensive.

This (admittedly modest) project has me quite excited, and I can't wait to see if it still works. This is not some disposable, faceless early 2000s Compaq or whatever - this is an iconic and truly classic machine that deserves care, attention, and continued periodic maintenance, even if it'll only serve as decoration. You don't just throw out or dump an IBM PS/2, and I possess the skills and passion to keep it in working order, so why not do so?

The curious case of NextStep on AIX

This is interesting: it turns out there was a NextStep release for IBM AIX workstations. From the initial, archived press release (via Steven Troughton-Smith):

AIX PS/2 NextStep Environment Version 1.1 is a state-of-the-art graphical user interface and programming environment for AIX workstations, designed to be compatible with the same application programming interface (API) as the NextStep product, Software Release 1.0, provided by NeXT, Incorporated.

AIX PS/2 NextStep Environment Version 1.1 provides icons and menus to facilitate access to system utilities and applications. The AIX NextStep Interface Builder is designed to provide a rich set of well-defined objects and graphical cut-and-paste capabilities for designing and implementing application user interfaces. The Objective-C (3) Compiler provides the benefits of object-oriented programming for developers who choose to design additional objects for the application development environment. AIX PS/2 NextStep Environment can help increase the productivity of programmers and end users.

Steven Troughton-Smith, who has a thing for collecting NEXT/early OS X builds and versions, is now looking for this piece of software history, but not a whole lot can be found about this online. I did ran into a thread in comp.sys.next.advocacy from 1995 in which a Robin D. Wilson sheds some more light onto the fate of this product:

And we ran it on an RS/6000 model 540 (with 63MB of RAM no less) -- it was pretty fast. The thing that killed it is Steve Jobs wanted IBM pay more money for 2.0. They had only _just_ finished porting 1.0 to AIX (it did run on top of AIX -- and there were several hacks made to accomodate it -- but it did run fine). When NeXT was shipping 2.0, IBM felt they wouldn't be able to sell 1.0 (there we some rather dramatic improvements between 1.0 and 2.0). They also didn't want to spend more money on it (as SJ was demanding for 2.0), and they didn't feel like porting 2.0 would take any less time (meaning they wouldn't get done until NeXT released a newer version). All that considered -- IBM abandoned NS.

This wasn't a "bad decision" by SJ (per se), but I can see IBM's view on this easier than I can see NeXT's...

Steven also stumbled upon a very, very long FAQ about NextStep/AIX, which contains tons of information. This will probably be very hard to find, but for the sake of digital archaeology and preservation, we really need to find it somewhere and preserve it. Absolutely fascinating.

Assessing IBM’s POWER8

It is the widest superscalar processor on the market, one that can issue up to 10 instructions and sustain 8 per clock: IBM's POWER8. IBM's POWER CPUs have always captured the imagination of the hardware enthusiast; it is the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the M1 Abrams of the processor world. Still, despite a flood of benchmarks and reports, it is very hard to pinpoint how it compares to the best Intel CPUs in performance wise. We admit that our own first attempt did not fully demystify the POWER8 either, due to the fact that some immature LE Linux software components (OpenJDK, MySQL...) did not allow us to run our enterprise workloads.

Hence we're undertaking another attempt to understand what the strengths and weaknesses are of Intel's most potent challenger. And we have good reasons besides curiosity and geekiness: IBM has just recently launched the IBM S812LC, the most affordable IBM POWER based server ever. IBM advertises the S812LC with "Starting at $4,820". That is pretty amazing if you consider that this is not some basic 1U server, but a high expandable 2U server with 32 (!) DIMM slots, 14 disk bays, 4 PCIe Gen 3 slots, and 2 redundant power supplies.

Classic AnandTech. This is only part 1 - more parts are to follow.

King of click: the story of the greatest keyboard ever made

The first thing you notice about the IBM Model M keyboard, when you finally get your hands on it, is its size. After years of tapping chiclet keys and glass screens on two- and three-pound devices, hefting five pounds of plastic and metal (including a thick steel plate) is slightly intimidating. The second thing is the sound - the solid click that's turned a standard-issue beige peripheral into one of the computer world’s most prized and useful antiques.

I have a Model M somewhere at my parents' house, with the very rare Dutch keyboard layout (we use US English now). However, I absolutely detest keyboards like that. I prefer keyboards with a decent click, but as little travel as possible, so that it requires as little pressure as possible to press a key, yet still get a decent click. Surprisingly - to some, perhaps - I am a huge fan of Apple's separate (so non-laptop) keyboard, and you can pry mine from my cold, dead hands.

However, I know I'm in the minority, and the Model M is a hugely popular beast of a keyboard. Great article by The Verge.