August 21, 2023

End of an era

Mainframe History

A mainframe is a large, powerful, highly specialized computer that can handle many tasks concurrently and process information quickly and securely. Due to these capabilities, mainframes continue to be used by financial institutions and many universities today. Mainframes have persisted and survived because they run mission-critical tasks and can handle substantial data loads while retaining runtime performance. An average mainframe has a rate of 99.999% uptime which equivocates to less than five minutes of outage or downtime a year. Out of the 10,000 functional mainframes still in use today, a vast majority come from IBM and are used by finance, insurance, national and state government and military, as well as other technology areas.

Unsurprisingly, for 64 years, the mainframe has been a critical technology at Texas A&M University. Now the mainframe era has come to a close at Texas A&M with its formal ‘powering down’ on Friday, Aug. 18. The cost of software and the specialized expertise required for legacy programming languages have prompted many universities to veer away from mainframes, gradually embracing commodity computing and now cloud technology across campuses in the United States.

The Texas A&M Mainframe in the 1960s

For a significant portion of the last six decades, the mainframe was the definitive computing power at Texas A&M and it ran everything from student course registration to financial software. The original mainframe, purchased in January 1959, was the IBM 650 and initially housed in the electrical engineering building. It was later relocated to the data-processing center, now known as the Computing Services Center, where its decedent’s run today.

During the 1960s, the mainframe underwent significant transformations. Initially managing financial systems using punch cards, the mainframe made advancements with the integration of three 1401s in 1967. This second-generation IBM computer worked in tandem with the IBM 7094 mainframe, tailored for large-scale scientific computing. Transitioning to the IBM 360 in 1968, the 7094 was reallocated to the Cyclotron for research purposes. The 1960s also saw the mainframe supporting diverse sectors such as the Agricultural Experiment Station, Texas A&M Research, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and even serving as the bedrock for the university's accounting software.

Student Involvement 

In its early stages, the university’s mainframe became a training ground for students mastering programming languages such as FORTRAN, COBOL and more. With a storage capacity of 2,000 10-digit bi-quinary words, students honed their coding skills on this powerful machine. The director of the Data Processing Center in the 1960s, Robert Smith, formed a fruitful partnership with IBM, granting students access to cutting-edge computing resources. The 1960s marked a pivotal era for the mainframe, witnessing the birth of research and academic computing.

One early mainframe operator, Alan Maples, worked as a computer operator at the data center on the IBM 360/65 while earning his master’s in computing sciences from 1968 to 1969 and shared his experience as a graduate student.  “I started as an operator running the IBM 1401 in another room. When students wanted their schoolwork bumped in the queue after loading their card decks in the reader, I would tell them if they got me a hamburger and a shake with my money, I would bump them in the queue, so their program would run sooner than other students. This way, I could get food brought to me while working the midnight to 8:00 a.m. shift." 

Burnt Orange to Maroon

A notable turn occurred in 1975 when Texas A&M boldly switched vendors, adopting hardware from Amdahl corporation, and became the third customer to use its revolutionary technology. NASA and the University of Michigan, a rival data processing university, used the same Amdahl 470. The only dilemma: Amdahl machines were painted in the company’s signature brand colors, orange and white, prompting the Texas A&M University data center director to remove all of the 470 outer panels and rush them to the local Cadillac dealership for a maroon makeover.

Government Use of the Mainframe

The Texas A&M mainframe served not only the campus but also government institutions like NASA and the U.S. Air Force. This collaboration endured until the early 1980s when the university faced cost-related challenges. Continuously evolving, the mainframe received a significant upgrade in 1969 with the installation of the IBM 360/65, reaffirming the university's commitment to technological advancement.

New Decades, New functions 

As the years progressed, the mainframe adapted to fulfill a range of functions. In 1977, it assumed responsibility for the budget payroll personnel system (BPP). The 1980s marked a shift to new class registration and financial software processing. Punch cards gave way to streamlined processes like SIMS in 1985, with touch tone telephone registration launching in 1986, and web registration in 2001.  In 1990 FAMIS was launched as a new mainframe application and has been the financial system of record since that time.

The venerable mainframe persisted and was modernized, orchestrating HR, payroll, benefit enrollment, and leave and time tracking until those functions were superseded by Workday in December of 2017, leaving FAMIS as the only application operating on mainframe technology.

Farewell to a Legacy

With the implementation of Banner in 2008, Texas A&M University retired its use of the mainframe and The Texas A&M University System became the sole user of mainframe technology.  In November of 2022, The Texas A&M University System transitioned the FAMIS application to a new technology platform and the final chapter of the mainframe era concluded. A ceremony to honor the individuals who labored on this integral system and commemorate more than six decades of the mainframe's dedicated service was held on August 18, 2023.