A Remade I.B.M. Reinvents the Mainframe

By John Makoff
The New York Times

San Francisco, Jan. 28, 1993 — Trying desperately to reinvent itself, a battered I.B.M. has disclosed to consultants that it has reinvented the mainframe, the type of computer on which the company built its empire. People who were briefed by I.B.M. said the machine was designed in less than a year -- regarded as record speed for a project of such complexity.

They said the new system, which will mark the International Business Machines Corporation's entry into a type of computing known as parallel processing, will be used initially for scientific supercomputing applications, but will eventually be useful for commercial purposes as well.

Called Power Parallel, the new machinery was developed by an unusual alliance between the Armonk, N.Y., company's mainframe operations in the Hudson Valley and its work-station business in Austin, Tex. Irving Wladasky-Berger, a veteran I.B.M. mainframe executive, has headed the project.

An industry consultant who attended a company briefing earlier this week in San Jose, Calif., said today that Nicholas Donofrio, the I.B.M. senior vice president who heads the company's mainframe business, gave an impassioned speech saying that the new microprocessor-based Power Parallel systems would never replace the company's mainframe business. Replacing Traditional Systems

But it is known that the computer maker is also racing to replace its traditional mainframe systems with lower-cost microprocessor-based versions of its traditional 3090 mainframe architecture. That work is being at an I.B.M. laboratory in Germany, according to a number of people familiar with the program. The first version of that system may be introduced as early as next month, and a full replacement for the traditional mainframe is expected to appear sometime in 1994.

I.B.M. has been struggling during the past decade with the industry's shift away from the huge room-sized machines that were the pride of the company in the 1960's, 70's and 80's.

While most centralized corporate computing is still done on such mainframe systems, new applications are being developed on machines based on microprocessors because they cost much less and often perform better.

This trend has been disastrous for the world's largest computer maker because it has been unwilling to abandon the mainframe. While more than half of the computer maker's profits have continued to come from its mainframe business, it has become a sharply declining source of revenue.

As a result, I.B.M. has begun to move rapidly to try to match the dramatic price-performance advantages claimed by competitors like the Digital Equipment Corporation and the Hewlett-Packard Company. Both of these companies have recently released new families of mainframes built out of clusters of fast microprocessors, rather than the custom-designed processors in I.B.M.'s mainframes.

Those competitors' machines are now selling for about $10,000 for each one million instructions per second, or MIPS, according to James Cassell, a computer industry analyst at the Gartner Group. That compares with I.B.M.'s current pricing for its mainframes which is between $50,000 and $80,000 for one MIPS.

In addition to increasing competition, I.B.M. must still figure out how to deal with the power struggle between its Austin work-station group and the Hudson Valley mainframe world.

I.B.M. told the consultants that the first version of the new machine, called SP-1, will use microprocessors developed in Austin and will run the Unix operating system. The new SP-1 system will be priced beginning at $300,000 for an entry-level machine with eight processors. A top-of-the-line version, with 64 processors and a special internal data switch based on an I.B.M. research project code-named Vulcan, will sell for about $2.7 million, according to a consultant who was briefed on the new system.

Its peak speed will be about 8 gigaflops -- billions of mathematical calculations per second -- potentially rivaling supercomputers made by Cray Research, but at a lower price.

The San Jose disclosure comes a little more than a week after the company said it was cutting off funding for Supercomputer Systems Inc., a small start-up company led by Steve S. Chen.

Copyright 1993