BEA bids adieu to trusty--sort of--mainframe

Lee Price, acting undersecretary of Commerce for economics and statistics pulled the
plug on the dinosaur, a Honeywell 66/80 mainframe. It slowly fell quiet as the cooling
fans spun down in various hardware components spaced throughout the cavernous computer
room. A red trouble light began to blink as bureau technicians looked on.


The shut-down ceremony marked the end of the line for the mainframe, which will now be
disassembled and junked. BEA's chief information officer, Alan Lorish, said he couldn't
give the Honeywell away.


The ceremony marked the final phase in the bureau's plan to upgrade its systems. All of
the bureau's users now use networked 486 and Pentium PCs.


But mention the mainframe around BEA, and employees who struggled with it are quick to
offer fond, and sometimes not so fond, memories.


"It was a monster," BEA director Steve Landefeld said. "But it was our
monster."


The Commerce agency got the mainframe in 1981 for free as government surplus. The
machine was problematic, but it served BEA needs. One of the chief gripes, Landefeld said,
was that it used punch cards for data input.


But it was more effective than having BEA economists share computer time bought from
other agencies' systems, he said. The mainframe's library of data stored on magnetic tape
quickly grew to 20,000 reels.


Despite running 80 percent of all applications on the mainframe, the system's
reliability was also a problem, Landefeld said.


"I remember waiting all night for a run only to find we had made a keypunch
error," he said. "There was not immediate feedback if something was wrong."


Despite the mainframe's problems, Landefeld said there was a lot of reluctance to move
to a PC LAN environment. The bureau first experimented with PC use in 1984, but the lack
of storage capacity at the time limited widespread implementation.


As PCs got more powerful, it became apparent that BEA had to move off the mainframe,
Landefeld said. In 1994, BEA decided to eliminate it.


Price said the computer market itself was driving the need to move BEA onto a high-
speed LAN.


"The way that we measure the economy has changed a lot," Price said. "We
have to monitor all the traditional markets, but we also have to look at the new dynamic
technical markets."


Former undersecretary Everett Ehrlich said the mainframe almost died last year during
the government shutdowns.


"The landlord turned the heat in the building off, and it got so cold the
mainframe crashed," he said. "I had to find out if I could get employees to come
in and get it running again."


BEA technicians were able to save the mainframe without losing any data. Last year, the
agency was still running several applications on it.


After the ceremony, BEA gave away pieces of the mainframe, old punch cards, a broken
circuit board and a roll of magnetic tape. Lorish said the mainframe had been with the
agency for so long, it was viewed as an employee.


But Lorish said today's computers will not enjoy such a long tenure at BEA. "The
pace of change today is dramatic," he said. "Never again will we have such an
extended period of time on a single platform."


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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