IBM mainframe celebrates 50th birthday

IBM’s first ever mainframe computer is celebrating a significant milestone as it sees in its 50th year as an integral part of world computing.

Related: The future of mainframe computing: Legacy or legendary?

The System 360 mainframe was first released on 7 April 1964 and heralded a new era in the world of the computing as it was the first time that a processor upgrade could be carried out using the same code and peripherals as a previous model.

IBM spokesperson Barry Heptonstall explained that even after 50 years the mainframes still see widespread use and he told the BBC that he doesn’t “think that people realise how often during the day they interact with a mainframe.”

"Before System 360 arrived, businesses bought a computer, wrote programs for it and then when it got too old or slow they threw it away and started again from scratch," he said.

Mainframes have a role to play in many benign tasks such as airline reservations, cash machine withdrawals and credit card payments, and the machines remain successful at performing repetitive small-scale tasks such as adding or taking figures away from bank balances.

One organisation that still uses mainframes is the Met Office and after 40 years of continual use, it stills sees the value in carrying on the usage.

"We don't see mainframes as legacy technology," said Charlie Ewen, chief information officer at the Met Office. "Mainframes have several characteristics that are enormously valuable for us. They are resilient, robust and are very cost-effective for some of the work we do.”

Kevin Murrell, co-founder of the UK’s National Museum of Computing, added that the name in fact came from an earlier era when scientific equipment such as oscilloscopes were constructed around a mainframe onto which customers could add specific extra components.

"It was quite a common name," Murrell said. "If it was big enough to walk around then it was a mainframe. If you could get it in your living room it was a mini-computer, and if you could carry it then it was a micro."

Another way that the legacy of the mainframe lives on is through the “escape” key that enjoys a place on most keyboards and the “SysRq” key that is still a part of some Windows keyboards.

Related: The evolution of the mainframe

The next birthday in the mainframe family will be Britain’s answer to the IBM System 360, the ICL 1900, which will also be 50 later on this year, and Murrell’s museum will have a variety of events to celebrate both birthdays.