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Celebrating 60 years of mainframe in Poughkeepsie

On April 7, 1964 the IBM System 360 was launched, with much fanfare from (and risk to) IBM. I’ve recently been reading the biography on Tom Watson Jr. (The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived) and it was fascinating to read about what led up to this launch, specifically that even 10 years prior to it, the company wasn’t certain that computers were the direction they’d go in. Mechanical tabulators were doing well! But it didn’t take long for computers to take off once organizations were introduced to the speed increases they offered. The System 360 was quite the gamble though. Massive investment in research, and it made the computers that came before it immediately undesirable due to their lack of flexibilty and inability to move into the future. Indeed, the 360 offered the opposite: a legacy that has now stretched into 60 years. Almost everything has changed about computing since 1964, but hints of the architecture built then are still present if you know where to look for them. In some cases, a program written for a 360 could even be tweaked to run on an IBM z16 that rolled off the assembly line today.

In order to celebrate hitting the milestone of 60 years since the release, IBM hosted internal events around the world. I happened to be in Philadelphia during the celebration day on Thursday, April 4th, and decided to make the trek up to the place where much of the research and development, and ultimately the launch, happened back then: Poughkeepsie, NY. I’d been to the office once before, back in 2019, but I was definitely overdue for another visit to the IBM mainframe homeland. This was a perfect opportunity.

I took an Amtrak up from Trenton, through New York City where I was treated to visiting the beautiful new Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station.

From there I enjoyed the second leg of my journey that took me straight to Poughkeepsie, where I was met by the social media famous Pasquale “PJ” Catalano, who brought me to the office and introduced me to folks who worked on the test floor. Then I got to visit the test floor itself! He posts about it frequently on social media, what feels like a rare and remarkable glimpse inside an IBM facility, so I had a passing familiarity with various locations, but an in-person visit is something else entirely. 200+ mainframes humming away in various states of testing, it was like nowhere I’ve ever been!

It’s also a lovely datacenter. It’s obviously an active, used, test floor, but it’s well-organized and tidy, clearly the team has a level of discipline that many production data centers would envy. I think part of this comes from the culture at IBM in general, but I’m sure some of it is also hard-won from experience, if you fail to label something or are careless about routing, it will come back to haunt you, and waste a lot of time in the future.

I got to hold a memory chip and a heatsink for an IBM Telum for the first time!

Plus an actual dual-chip module holding a couple Telum chips (I had previously held just a Telum in a case back at TechXchange in September).

I got to check out a rack-mount z16 for the first time.

And to my delight I finally got to see the beautiful IBM LinuxONE doors!

Visiting the mainframes of today felt to be a truly fitting way to honor the 60 year legacy of the IBM System 360, but after getting to see some other mainframe goodies while PJ got some work done, we made our way to the cafeteria for the real party. The IBM Corporate Archives had put together a whole hallway of displays!

They even graciously honored PJ’s request to open up the IBM System 360 they had on display and let us get some pictures “inside” it. Bliss!

Let me tell you, I had a wonderful time geeking out with these folks. I’ve always loved history, and with my work in this space I’ve developed a true appreciation for how legendary IBM is, and this is the heart of it. I also fear I talked the ear off of one woman from the archives who had a typewriter skirt on, as I shared all about my collection. Next time I’m in Poughkeepsie I’m definitely going to ask to see their own typewriter and mechanical calculator collection.

From there we grabbed some lunch and then went to the celebration itself. I ran into several folks I didn’t know worked out of Poughkeepsie, so those were all delightful surprises. Career-wise I’ve definitely gained value in meeting up with colleagues in-person from time to time, as it really does help solidify those bonds that keep us working well together at a distance. I also finally got to meet our fearless leader in IBM Z and LinuxONE, Ross Mauri!

And then there was cake! After which I took some time to meet with a couple other colleagues, and concluded my day meeting with a long time friend who came down to visit from the IBM Quantum division. We had coffee and then he graciously dropped me back off at the train station for my 5:30 train back to Trenton.

In all, a long day but one that was incredibly satisfying. And I already have a list of people to talk to and things to see during my next visit, maybe some time over the summer?