Gene Amdahl Essay Research Paper


One of the original architects of the

business mainframe computer including IBM’s System/360 computer

line Amdahl started the IBM-compatible market when he left IBM to found

Amdahl Corporation. Amdahl’s work has been called brilliant and genius

by his peers. The Times of London named him one of the "1 000 Makers

of the 20th Century" in 1991 and mainframe magazine Computerworld

considered Amdahl one of the 25 people "who changed the world."

He is the founder of four companies Amdahl Corporation Trilogy Systems

(now part of Elxsi Corporation) Andor Systems and Commercial Data Servers


Early history

Gene Myron Amdahl was born in South Dakota in 1922. After serving two

years in the U.S. Navy during World War II where he learned electronics

and taking a course in computer programming he received a bachelors degree

in engineering physics at South Dakota

State University in 1948. In 1952 he completed his doctorate in theoretical

physics at the University of Wisconsin

where he designed his first computer the Wisconsin Integrally Synchronized

Computer (WISC).

He began his career with IBM in 1952 and became the chief design engineer

of the IBM 704. In 1955 Amdahl worked with others to design the Datatron

which led to a computer called the Stretch and eventually became the

IBM 7030 a computer that used the new transistor technology. In 1956

after just four short years with IBM Amdahl became unhappy with the company

and quit. After five years of working for other computer companies he

returned to IBM in 1960.

During the 1960s Amdahl gained recognition as the principle architect

of IBM’s impressive System

360 series of mainframe computers. The IBM System 360 was based on

the Stretch which Amdahl had worked on in 1955. The 360 series was one

of the greatest success stories in the computer industry and became the

main ingredient to IBM’s enormous profitability in the late 1960s.

Leaving IBM…again

Amdahl became an IBM Fellow and was able to pursue his own research projects.

In 1969 he was director of IBM’s

Advanced Computing Systems Laboratory in Menlo Park California. He

recommended that the laboratory be shut down which IBM did and presented

his ideas about the internal barriers that prevented IBM from shooting

for the high end of computer development. Although his ideas were accepted

IBM executives refused to change policies and Amdahl left IBM again.

In 1970 Amdahl formed his own company Amdahl

Corporation in Sunnyvale California. His plan was to compete head-to-head

with IBM in the mainframe market. Most industry analysts considered this

to be career suicide and gave his start-up company very little chance

of surviving. But survive it did and actually prospered. Instead of creating

a rival system to IBM Amdahl created discounted computers that could

be substituted for name brand models and run the same software. Basically

he designed the first computer clones known then as "plug-to-plug

compatibles." Amdahl became the most celebrated entrepreneur in the

computer industry for awhile. The only major criticism that was raised

about Amdahl Corporation at the time was that Amdahl took start-up money

from Fujitsu Ltd. of Japan in exchange for American mainframe technology.

In 1975 Amdahl Corporation shipped its first computer the Amdahl 470

V/6. Over the next few years Amdahl and IBM leap-frogged each other with

faster smaller and cheaper computers. In 1979 Gene Amdahl began moving

away from Amdahl Corporation when he resigned his post as chairman. He

became chairman emeritus for less than a year leaving Amdahl Corporation

in 1980 to found Trilogy Systems Corporation.

With the success of Amdahl Corporation Amdahl had no trouble interesting

investors in this new company and easily raised $230 million in start-up

money. Again his plan was to compete with IBM and also Amdahl Corporation

in the high-end mainframe computer market. In addition Amdahl planned

to completely redesign the semiconductor chips that powered the computers.

His dream was to combine the functions of 100 separate chips onto one

superchip that would work faster and more efficiently than the multiple


Trilogy’s Misfortune

Unfortunately Trilogy was hounded by disasters. Torrential rains delayed

construction of the chip plant then invaded the air conditioning destroying

the clean room atmosphere and all the chips currently being created. At

that point Amdahl had spent one-third of the start-up money with nothing

to show for it. To save Trilogy Amdahl spent the remainder of the money

to acquire Elxsi Corporation a computer manufacturer in 1985. The new

company continued to flounder and never achieved great success. In 1989

Amdahl stepped down as chairman of Elxsi to devote more time to his next


In 1987 Amdahl founded his third company this one called Andor Systems

after the "and" and "or" logic gates of computer circuitry.

This time his aim was to build computers that would compete with IBM’s

smaller mainframes. Industry analysts uniformly gave the company very

little chance of success. But Amdahl felt he had an edge — he could make

small mainframe computers more cheaply than IBM. He could use new technology

that allowed him to pack the computer’s central processor onto one

board rather than the several used by IBM and he redesigned the compiler

to work more quickly and efficiently. These innovations allowed Andor’s

computers to take up less space and generate less heat a distinct advantage

to customers who no longer would need giant air-conditioned rooms in which

to place their computers.

But Andor was plagued by bad chips causing a delay of almost two years

before the first computers hit the market. Meanwhile IBM came out with

its own midsize computer using some of the same technology employed by

Andor. To survive Andor had to come up with other peripheral products

that it could quickly get on the market. But Andor never achieved the

success it was after with the small mainframes and in 1991 it had scaled

back products to include only a data backup system. By 1994 the company

had yet to turn a profit. Eventually the company declared bankruptcy.

The Main-frame Devotee

But Gene Amdahl was not ready to give up. In 1996 at the age of 74

he started his fourth company this one called Commercial

Data Servers (CDS). Through CDS Amdahl intends to distribute IBM-compatible

PC-based mainframes that use cryogenically-cooled CMOS processors and

a new processor design that he created. CDS is targeting its products

at companies that need the capabilities and selling price of a smaller

mainframe a market that CDS believes IBM and other manufacturers aren’t

serving adequately.

Gene Amdahl continues his quest to merge mainframe technologies with

the more popular PC technology. Though many find these two areas incompatible

(mainframe means centralized controlled computing; PCs are for individual

computing) Amdahl won’t give in to those who believe mainframes

are dinosaurs that have outlived their usefulness. And apparently he

doesn’t intend to ever give up.


Who’s Who in America

Levine Jonathan B. "Gene Amdahl tries for two out

of three" Business Week June 27 1988

Pare Terence P. "Lions in winter" Fortune

July 4 1988

"Elxsi names chairman" The New York Times

March 16 1989 p.D14

Pitta Julie "Strike two?" Forbes

December 9 1991

Nash Jim "Gene Amdahl: mainframe guru still driven

still a believer in vision" The Business Journal January

10 1994

Hast Adele Ed. International Directory of Company

Histories Volume III St. James Press 1991

"Cryogenically-cooled CMOS systems will come out

of Amdahl" IBM System User International July 19 1996