Improving Mainframes at I.B.M.
By John Markoff
The New York Times
April 9, 1991
The new president of I.B.M.'s mainframe computer division said in an interview yesterday that the company was working to "reincarnate" its most powerful and expensive computers using the same low-cost and speedy technologies that have led to the explosive growth of work stations and personal computers.
The company, which introduced a new generation of mainframe computers last September, said yesterday that it was redesigning its large systems to take advantage of the growing power of inexpensive chips known as microprocessors. These chips combine all of a computer's functions onto a single piece of silicon, thereby significantly lowering costs and raising computing speeds.
'We Live in Rented Space'
Nicholas M. Donofrio, who took over as president of the Data Systems division in January, also said yesterday, "I basically believe that our single greatest competitive threat is from our nontraditional competitors."
"It's coming from the desktop competition," he added. "I keep telling my people that we live in rented space, and the lease is held by the customer."
The International Business Machines Corporation's principal competitors in the desktop computing market are now lining up behind different microprocessors. At a news conference scheduled for today, a consortium of almost two dozen computer makers and software publishers will announce a new computing standard based on microprocessors made by MIPS Computer Systems Inc. and by the Intel Corporation.
Based on Expensive Chips
Until now, mainframe computers, like those made by I.B.M., have been based on expensive, custom-designed, high-speed chips. I.B.M.'s major large-systems competitors are also pursuing microprocessor-based alternatives to traditional mainframe designs. Last month executives at the Digital Equipment Corporation said they planned to enter the market for massively parallel computers within the next year. Also, earlier this year, I.B.M.'s principal mainframe competitor, the Amdahl Corporation, licensed Sun Microsystem Inc.'s Sparc microprocessor design.
Mr. Donofrio, an electrical engineer by training, took over as head of I.B.M.'s mainframe computer business after leading the successful introduction of the company's RS/6000 work station business last April.
He said the semiconductor technology that was now standard in personal computers and work stations and used little power would have an increasing impact on the design of mainframe computers. These chips are made using a semiconductor manufacturing process called C-MOS, or complementary metal oxide semiconductor.
Mr. Donofrio said, however, that a competing technology known as bi-polar, used today in most mainframes, would continue to play a role in large systems. These chips have traditionally been faster than C-MOS parts but need far more power and special cooling systems. He said I.B.M. was perfecting design tools to permit engineers to scale-up the size of bi-polar chips significantly.
I.B.M.'s view that bi-polar has a bright future is not universally shared in the industry. Many computer designers now argue that the speed of C-MOS designs is increasing so quickly that they will soon outstrip almost all competing semiconductor technologies for computer applications.
The interview with Mr. Donofrio took place after a press briefing I.B.M. scheduled to provide an updating on the progress of the System/390 mainframe computer line that was introduced last September.
Special Storage Systems
The company said it was now taking a number of measures to connect its proprietary large systems to the growing market for computers that meet general industry standards. Yesterday I.B.M. demonstrated the ability of its mainframe computers to function as special storage and management systems for networks of personal computers and work stations.
Mr. Donofrio said developers of mainframe products must push hard to catch up with the rapid pace of innovation in microprocessor-based desktop systems. Desktop computers are now doubling in speed roughly every 18 months, far faster than progress in the mainframe world. New mainframe generations have been as far as 6 to 10 years apart.
"My visceral feeling is that we have to move as fast as they are moving or we're going to watch them fly up our tailpipes," Mr. Donofrio said.
He added that he brought many of the design approaches that had been popularized in the work station world with him to his new job as head of the division that is responsible for most of I.B.M.'s earnings.
Economic Situation Cited
He also said he did not believe that the new mainframe computer technologies, introduced last September, were responsible for the company's recent slowdown in sales. "I think that our customers have lengthened their buying decisions," he added. "But it's because of the economic situation, not technology."
At the briefing, another I.B.M. executive, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, assistant general manager for enterprise systems, argued that although microprocessors could be chained together in large arrays, a great design challenge of parallel computing remained in developing the software that permits the chips to work together efficiently.
"People can put 100 or 1,000 microprocessors together," he said, "but the complexity of the software needed to harness them works to our advantage. This is what we're very good at."
I.B.M.'s developers of large systems are now aiming for a tenfold increase in performance in the next generation of its most powerful computers, Mr. Wladawsky-Berger said, predicting that the growth of mainframe business will continue at modest to good levels.
GRAPHIC: Photo: Nicholas M. Donofrio, president of I.B.M.'s mainframe computer division, says it is using the growing power of inexpensive chips to redesign its large systems. (Joe Vericker/Photobureau) (pg. D3)
Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company