IBM Archive

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 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.

Apple, IBM forge enterprise partnership

Apple and IBM have... Entered into a partnership.

The new IBM MobileFirst for iOS solutions will be built in an exclusive collaboration that draws on the distinct strengths of each company: IBM's big data and analytics capabilities, with the power of more than 100,000 IBM industry and domain consultants and software developers behind it, fused with Apple's legendary consumer experience, hardware and software integration and developer platform. The combination will create apps that can transform specific aspects of how businesses and employees work using iPhone and iPad, allowing companies to achieve new levels of efficiency, effectiveness and customer satisfaction - faster and easier than ever before.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of this, so maybe it's simply fitting. In any case, this stuff isn't exactly sexy, but it looks like a great partnership for both companies.

Workplace Microkernel and OS: A Case Study

The Ars Technica article on OS/2 mentions, in passing, Workplace OS, the pie-in-the-sky successor to OS/2 IBM was working on. I found this fantastic journal article written by Brett D. Fleisch and Mark Allan A. Co, which goes into this failed project in great detail.

IBM's Microkernel, named Workplace OS microkernel, was the core components of Workplace OS, a portable successor of OS/2. The basic premise of Workplace OS work was: 1) IBM would adopt and improve the CMU Mach 3.0 microkernel for use on PDAs, the desktop, workstations, and massively parallel machines, and 2) that several operating system personalities would execute on the microkernel platform concurrently. This architecture would allow users to switch between applications written for different operating systems while IBM would also benefit by having one common platform for all product lines. The goals of the microkernel and the technical features of design are described in this paper. We also present lessons that may benefit future projects with similar goals.

Also, I get to use the IBM icon!

IBM Donates Symphony to Apache Project

"After most of the developers and Linux distributions deserted them for LibreOffice, Oracle donated to the Apache Software Foundation. IBM has surprisingly thrown its weight behind in the vs LibreOffice fight. Tomorrow IBM will announce the donation of the source code of their free office suite - IBM Lotus Symphony - to the Apache"

IBM Turns 100 Today

"Today International Business Machines celebrated a relative rarity in the tech business - its one hundredth anniversary. By contrast Google is a mere 12 years old, Apple is 35, Microsoft is 36, and Hewlett-Packard is 72 years old." One of the most important companies in the computer industry. Congratulations, IBM, on to the next century! And we get to use our IBM logo for once. Yay!

IBM’s Million Dollar CPU Is the Fastest in the World

At the Hot Chips 2010 conference, IBM announced their upcoming z196 CPU, which is really, really fast. How fast? Fastest chip in the world fast. Intended for Z-series mainframe computers, the Z196 has a clock speed of 5.2GHz. Measuring just 512 square millimeters, the Z196 is fabricated on 45nm PD SOI technology, and on its surface contains almost one and a half billion transistors. My... Processor is bigger than yours.

IBM Moving to Firefox

Bob Sutor, Vice President of Open Source and Linux at IBM confirmed on his blog that the entire IBM company is moving to Firefox as its default browser. Though it seems like various users in the company have been able to use Firefox for quite some time, it looks like now they're going to be encouraging everyone to use it, and all new computers will be provisioned with Firefox as the default. Sutor has plenty of glowing praise for the open source browser in his blog post.

IBM Prunes Low-Cost AIX Rev

"IBM has radically improved the bang for the buck on its Power7-based Power Systems 701 and 702 blade servers this week, and is expected to soon deliver similarly priced entry rack and tower servers. And now it has a new, lower-cost AIX 6.1 Express Edition that will match the less expensive hardware and therefore help Big Blue's AIX platform better compete against Windows, Linux, HP-UX, and Solaris alternatives. The new AIX Express Edition takes the special low-cost pricing that was available only on JS series blade servers and now makes it available across the Power Systems line, including logical partitions on the largest Power 595 (and before too long Power 595) servers."