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System/360 Is an Innovative Leap in the History of Computer Technology

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Half a century ago, when a company’s computing needs increased and computer equipment became outdated, it was not easy to upgrade. It was necessary to not only buy a new computer, but also a new set of peripherals and new software from scratch. From today user’s point of view, it is a nightmare. The solution to this challenge came from IBM System/360, operating like the equipment we know today.

The IBM System/360 series was one of the greatest product innovations in the history of computing. First announced on April 7, 1964, it utilized faster speeds in microelectronic technology, which reshaped the concepts of computer organization. The biggest rational outcome of the IBM System/360 was one computer for everyone. Thomas J. Watson Jr., the IBM Board Chairman at the time, said the introduction of System/360 will transform the concepts of designing and building computers, and the result will be a computer with increased productivity at a lower cost than ever before. It set path for a new generation not only of computers but also application to business, science, and government. The reason it was called 360 was because it covered 360 degrees of the customer needs. The idea was to have a unified family of processors, catering to both the high-end scientific users and smaller businesses. IBM introduced System/360 with different price points and configurations. System/360 models were priced between $133,000 up to $5,500,000 and monthly rentals ranged from $2,700 to $115,000 in 1960s dollars. Customers had a choice of 5 processors, 19 combinations of computing power and memory, and peripherals such as printers or tape drives worked with all models. In addition, the software written for this system was compatible with each other. The program executed on one machine could be performed on any other. Users who had previously withheld the purchase of new computers due to costs, could finally buy a computer they needed without necessary to exchange the entire system, peripherals, and software.

Solid logic technology, memory power, and application versatility were some of the few significant technological advancements by the system. The basic components of the system were made up of microelectronic computer circuits. The transistors and diodes on the circuits were 1/28,000 of a square inch and processed information through electrical impulses, as fast as 1/6-billion of a second. The system’s memory power overcame memory size limitations by over sixty more times than what was available in IBM computers at the time. Memory operation processed at varying speeds, with the fastest speed at 1/200-billion of a second. Computer programmers could to command eight million characters per second from core storage.

In previous IBM computers, different models were dedicated to specific applications. The new System/360’s ambition was to replace all the computers on the market with its own architecture. All computer systems in the same family had the same architecture and were compatible with each other. Compatibility meant that all family members had the same standard instruction set and interface to external devices. In this way, when users upgraded or downgraded from one computer to another, the application and the external device did not need to be changed, and the computing environment remained the same. Dedicated system software and external devices were not required for each machine. The System/360 was also appreciated by NASA and responsible for the success of the Apollo 11 mission, performing the calculations needed for space maneuvers and the first landing on the Moon.

The introduction of System/360 was one of the greatest innovation leaps in the history of computing. Five decades have passed since then, the basic technological solutions on which the System/360 was based are still present in the next generations of computers we use today. IBM System/360 was not only a significant technological breakthrough, but it was probably the most successful IBM product, securing the company a dominant position in the industry for decades to come.

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