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Originally published 2 March 2006
Remember when there were no personal computers or workstation servers and mainframe computers dominated computing? Anything that was computing was mainframe, and IBM was dominant.
The mainframe market dominance began with the appearance of the IBM 360 line of machines. The IBM 360 was the first machine that offered a compatible operating system across a family of processors. Prior to the IBM 360, every computer had its own unique operating system and software. However, IBM came up with the idea (which was revolutionary at the time) that there should be software compatibility among families of machines. This software compatibility meant that whenever a company decided to upgrade a machine, their investment in software would not be lost.
The “father” of the IBM 360 line of machines was a hardware engineer named Gene Amdahl. As an engineer at IBM, Gene was the principal architect of the IBM 360.
After spending several years at IBM, Gene left the company to found Amdahl Corporation. He set out to create an IBM-compatible mainframe computer that was not built by IBM, another idea that was revolutionary at the time.
It was at Amdahl Corporation that I first met Gene. Located in Sunnyvale, California, Amdahl Corporation was a novel and revolutionary company for its time. The profit margins that it enjoyed on building and selling its mainframe-compatible computer were enormous (for a while).
I was merely a systems engineer and consultant for Amdahl Corporation, and my early interactions with Gene consisted of seeing him in the cafeteria when we ate lunch. Even though I was not a hardware engineer, I understood that this man had accomplished things that no one else had ever done. Everyone who worked at Amdahl Corporation respected him personally and professionally.
Then something unusual happened. Gene Amdahl stopped coming to work. For a period of several months, we didn’t see him at all. Finally, one day when we were having lunch in the cafeteria, we saw him arrive with Cliff Madden, the CFO of Amdahl at the time. Little did we know that Gene had come to resign. It seems that because of financing arrangements with the Fujitsu Ltd. of Japan and the venture capitalists, Gene actually owned very little of Amdahl Corporation.
Recognizing that there were opportunities Amdahl Corporation was not capitalizing on, Gene founded a new company called Trilogy to try to seize those opportunities. Since that time, he has founded two other companies – Andor International, Ltd. in 1987 and Commercial Data Services, Inc. in 1994.
A highly honored individual, Gene Amdahl is a Fellow of the National Academy of Engineering and a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. He is also the recipient of many awards, including the ACM/IEEE Eckert-Mauchly Award (1987) and the IEEE Computer Entrepreneur Award (1989). Gene holds a B.S.E.P degree from South Dakota State University, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin.
Several years later I wrote a book that I chose to dedicate to Gene Amdahl. I called his secretary at Trilogy and asked where I should send the book. She called back and said that Gene Amdahl had invited me to Trilogy, and I was thrilled. On the appointed day, I went to Trilogy, in Santa Clara, and spent the morning with Gene Amdahl. He gave me a personal guided tour of his newest company.
I still harbor very fond memories of the morning I spent with one of the true pioneers of the computing industry – a living legend. I count those hours as some of the best of my life.
SOURCE: Gene Amdahl – A Living Legend
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