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Thursday, 25 September 2008 13:58

Big Blue sees Red -- Celebrating 40 years of IBM international technical support

IBM recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its international technical support organisation, ITSO, and  has committed to continue producing its core product, free IBM Redbooks, which these days are downloaded in the tens of millions.

The Computing-Tabulating-Recording-Company, incorporated in 1911, changed its name on 14 January 1924 to International Business Machines, alias IBM. If you want to find out some more, here's a handy IBM time line of important dates in IBM history, or try Wikipedia, and here's the official IBM Archives site.

Disclosure: I write this article having the somewhat biased attitude of an IBM retiree. I was fairly deeply involved with the subject matter of this article, so please indulge me if I appear overenthusiastic in this case.

I joined IBM Australia in January 1970, just in time for the announcement of the IBM System/370 mainframe, successor of the groundbreaking System/360 range and predecessor of the current System z range. (Here's a one-page snapshot history of the IBM 360/370/3090/390 mainframes.)

During 1970, the IBM System/3 was also announced in Australia (during 1969 in the USA). This was the great, great, great grandfather of the current IBM System i range (one of two lines within the current IBM Power merged systems range).

IT, or "data processing" as we then called it, certainly was very different back in the 1960s and 1970s -- although we definitely  considered ourselves to be working on the leading edge! Telecommunication line speeds were 2,400 or 4,800 or 9,600 bps, or as much as to 14,400 bps on a super-fast link (believe it or not, the "broadband" of the times).

The IBM System/3 came with 4K of magnetic core RAM memory and a single 14-ich disk platter of 2.4 MB capacity, expandable to as much as 16K of RAM and 10 MB of disk (if you could afford it).

There were innovations, then as now. For example, the IBM 80-column punched card, or Hollerith card, on the System/3 was replaced by an innovative 96-column card, as illustrated in this Wikipedia System/3 page.

Can you imagine that, 96 characters of data (in 3 tiers or rows each holding 32 characters) was able to be stored on a piece of cardboard only about one-third the size of the Hollerith card. What a spectacular advance (and a conserver of trees, though in those days none of us gave much thought to loss of forests).

I had the pleasure of working on all these system types over my years at IBM, as well as some others like the IBM System/7 (a real-time, process control system, one of the earliest to use semiconductor memory instead of magnetic cores, and very fast for its day) that rarely gets a mention.

But enough, already, of this potted history of IBM systems.


True to the "international" part of its corporate name, IBM already by the 1930s had offices around the world. For example, the IBM Australia subsidiary was incorporated in 1932, and reached its 70th year anniversary Down Under in 2002.

To better serve its international staff and customers by giving them a better interface to its development labs, in 1968 IBM set up the International Technical Support Organization, or ITSO.

Most of these labs are located across the USA, but now some labs are located internationally too. These labs are not part of IBM's pure research labs, but places where IBM's commercial hardware and software products are developed.

For example, one such labs is Rochester, Minnesota, where the IBM System/3 and its descendents such as the System/38 and AS/400 were developed.

This happens to be the lab that I visited most frequently during my tenure at IBM, so I know its products quite well and one day might write an iTWire article about the fantastic architecture of these advanced systems, and how architecturally they leave Windows and Linux for dead. But I'll struggle on and refrain from doing so for now.

The ITSO at its various offices essentially centers its work on commercial IBM production systems (released, and soon to be announced or released). Permanent ITSO staff or staff on assignment from IBM field locations in the USA or around the world form the core of each ITSO office.

They also invite IBM business partner staff or customers to visit and assist them, via a program of residencies each of which lasts from a few weeks to a month or two.

The ITSO staff and guest members get deeply involved with testing released or coming IBM hardware and software, providing invaluable practical feedback to the lab hardware/software architects and developers.

Both general and international issues are highlighted, such as problems with internationalization and localization of software, installation difficulties, software bugs, system performance problems, and documentation deficiencies.


Probably the most well-known and appreciated deliverable of the ITSO is the wide range of IBM Redbooks that they produce.

Click the image to open the download page for this IBM Redbook (in a new window).

Redbooks -- or the slimmer volumes called Redpapers, and the one-page documents called Technotes -- are freely downloadable PDF or HTML documents usually developed during a residency and published some weeks later.

They got this name simply because originally they had plain red covers. Today  they have a niftier appearance, such as the one shown here (which, being a show-off, is one I contributed to in 2003, the previous one being a mere 20 years before that).

They are distinguished, in their intent and content, from IBM product documentation (sometimes referred to as "Whitebooks" since they don't have the famous red cover), which contain the regular sort of product usage and reference material.

In distinction, Redbooks usually cover peripheral background information, tips and techniques, lessons learnt when installing and using products, comparisons with similar or alternative products, best practices, and similar guidance that sometimes was discovered too late (e.g., late-breaking hardware or software changes) to be incorporated into the product's regular documentation.

They cover a vast range of topics related to IBM products, services, and architectures. They are usually specific to a particular hardware and/or software product (for example, Implementing IBM Tivoli Service Request Manager V7.1 Service Catalog or High Availability, Scalability, and Disaster Recovery for DB2 on Linux, UNIX, and Windows).

However some Redbooks are much broader in content and thereby of more interest to general readers, even those with no IBM products installed. Here I'm referring to Redbook titles such as TCP/IP Tutorial and Technical Overview or Understanding LDAP - Design and Implementation or Introduction to Networking Technologies or Understanding Optical Communications or Implementing Technology to Support SOA Governance and Management or Case Study: Information as a Service SOA Scenario or a whole series on patterns like: Patterns: Implementing an SOA using an Enterprise Service Bus

You get the point, I'm sure. This corpus of IBM publications is a real treasure trove of free information for IT professionals and enthusiasts.

In future iTWire articles, I'll have more to say about IBM Redbooks. Further, I plan to extend that coverage to  IT documentation from other sources that's freely available (and usually free) on the Web.

In the meantime, congratulations to IBM for starting up the ITSO forty years ago and for committing to its future.

See The ITSO celebrates its 'Ruby Anniversary' for more information.

Have some fun with a challenge or two that I've devised for you!
Go visit the iTWire TechWords Interactive Crosswords section.


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Tony Austin

Worked at IBM from 1970, for a quarter century, then founded Asia/Pacific Computer Services to provide IT consulting and software development services (closed company at end of 2013). These says am still involved with IT as an observer and commentator, as well as attempting to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics and whatever else will keep my mind active and fend off deterioration of my grey matter.



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