Farewell to an old friend

Farewell to an old friend

On April 1, 2013, the university’s mainframe was powered down for the final time, more than 50 years after the first campus mainframes brought high-performance computing to the UI.

Mainframes powered decades of UI academic and administrative functions. Sometimes called “big iron,” a mainframe is a large-scale computer that can support thousands of users simultaneously and run vital operations reliably and securely. The mainframe probably got its name from massive metal frames that once housed it, often occupying thousands of square feet.

Aiding research

Installing an IBM mainframe, 1961. Standing left to right are E.F. Lindquist, Harvey Davis (then UI provost), James Van Allen, and an IBM rep. Seated is John Dolch, then director of the university's computer center.

The university’s first computing center opened in 1958 with an IBM 650, the world’s first mass-produced computer.

Two of the center’s first customers were James Van Allen and E.F. Lindquist.  Van Allen, professor of physics and astronomy, needed to crunch data from orbiting satellites. Lindquist, professor of education, was looking to score tests taken by thousands of schoolchildren.

Gerard Weeg, who became the computer center’s director in 1964, saw plentiful opportunities for expansion, and countless other researchers utilized the system throughout the years.

Maybe even more than his predecessors, Weeg believed computing would be important to research and teaching in all disciplines,” says Bill Decker, former associate vice president for research and director of ITS.”

All business

"We supported a lot of things over the years—the University Libraries catalog, payroll and financial transactions, student records, and so on,” says Rich France, a senior systems administrator who recently retired from ITS. UI Hospitals and Clinics operated its own mainframe, so France and colleagues also built bridges to share data across campus systems.

University business processes were running off mainframes, too. Administrative Data Processing was the home for much of this work.

By 1989, shifts in technology and demand let system administrators combine academic and business functions into a single mainframe, the one located in Jessup. And there were signs of even greater change to come.

In the late 1970s, small personal machines—many of them hobby computers—had started to appear,” Decker recalls. “Those of us in the business saw a major impact coming, although no one could have predicted its extent.”

Faster, smaller, cheaper

As personal computers landed on desktops across campus, functions continued to shift away from the mainframe. Personnel data, library records, and more moved on to new platforms.

At the UI, new options provide the computing power required by today’s researchers. A high-performance computing cluster dubbed Helium debuted in early 2011, and another cluster—Neon—came online in late 2013. In the same timeframe, researchers with the computer science department expanded their Starexec Cluster by adding four high-density computing cabinets at the Information Technology Facility.

A couple of years ago, the academic side of the mainframe was shut down. Eventually, only student records remained on the administrative side. With the launch of MAUI in 2012, the time to retire the mainframe had come.

A full story on the mainframe history and retirement is available in Iowa Now.