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NASA is Unplugging the “Big Iron” – Tech Tuesday

Ever since the days of the Mercury flights, there has been “Big Iron” at NASA. “Big Iron” is slang for a computer mainframe, capable of running millions of computations a second. But with the current computer age and the power in a desktop or even a laptop, for what NASA does, those mainframes just are not needed any more. So, they are unplugging the last one.

End of an Era at NASA
Photo Courtesy of NASA

NASA CIO Linda Cureton wrote on her blog that the time had come to power down the last IBM Z9 that NASA has. She called it the end of an era. And it is, because these machines helped to send man to the Moon as well as get the shuttle to fly. She went on to share her thoughts on these mainframes at NASA:

In my first stint at NASA, I was at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a mainframe systems programmer when it was still cool. That IBM 360-95 was used to solve complex computational problems for space flight.   Back then, I comfortably navigated the world of IBM 360 Assembler language and still remember the much-coveted “green card” that had all the pearls of information about machine code.  Back then, real systems programmers did hexadecimal arithmetic – today, “there’s an app for it!”

When she said it was the end of an era, she was right. Many companies and organizations are decommissioning these machines. No doubt as a cost saving thing. Running one of these machines can run well into the $70,000 a month range. While a common desktop can do a lot of what the mainframe does, although much slower, but for cheaper. Conversely, you can build distributed computing centers with more power and less cost out of off the shelf parts, even PS3s!

I know this all makes me sound so nostalgic and geeky, that a big computer is getting shut off, but this is still a part of history. These machines helped us to shape the world we live in today. It’s pretty cool to think about it. And if I had a garage and unlimited finds for power, I would take one of these and run it just for the fun of it. I have no clue though, what I would do with it. Maybe rent it out as a Call of Duty server.


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