Mad Dog 21/21: Sacred Families
July 30, 2018 Hesh Wiener
Catalonia is an autonomous region in the northeast corner of Spain. Its people prefer the Catalan language to Spanish or Occitan. During the past two centuries, Catalonia has been beloved home to many artists and, notably, architects. In Barcelona, Catalonia’s largest city, the magnificent cathedral Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) is finally approaching completion nearly 100 years after the death of its inspiring architect, Antoni Gaudi. Sagrada Familia is one reason Catalonia is a mainstay of Iberian culture comparable in stature and influence to the position in information technology held by IBM.
Although IBM no longer has the vast power it enjoyed during its golden years in the third quarter of the twentieth century, the company still has great strength. Critics commonly underestimate Big Blue’s tenacity and fail to appreciate just how much key customers favor the company and its offerings. During the past few years, IBM has added to its own woes by ineptly managing forays into new market segments, such as cloud computing and digital currencies. IBM has dubbed a group of activities it believes will bring it substantial future growth “strategic imperatives,” hoping to foster a more progressive image among customers and investors. But the company made its move far sooner than the actual importance of these offerings demonstrated the wisdom of its planned transformation. At the same time, IBM failed to adequately emphasize and promote the goods and services tied to its two legacy families of processors, the mainframe and the Power. Still, despite its missteps, several months ago IBM began to enjoy an upturn in total corporate sales, reversing a downward trend that had persisted for more than five years.
IBM’s rebound, which has persisted for three quarters, is based not so much on Big Blue’s strategic imperatives but rather on the revival of the company’s two families of legacy computers along with their software, services, peripheral devices, and other related offerings. The upturn in IBM’s fortunes appears to span the company’s whole customer base; it’s not limited to any particular end user market segments, geographic locations or local economic conditions. IBM’s return to growth is not a tide coming in, lifting all ships the same amount, but neither is it narrowly selective, affecting, for example banking but not insurance.
It’s very hard to explain precisely why and how this resurgence has occurred, but that is also the case with soaring worldwide interest in Catalonia’s Sagrada Famlia that has become apparent in recent years. In the case of the cathedral, new laws have allowed non-governmental groups to collect admission fees from visitors. The funds collected from visitors have been put to work building out the unfinished portions of the cathedral and restoring previously completed portions of the edifice that have suffered weather damage and other wear and tear over the years. IBM, for its part, has been able to price its legacy goods and services in a way that brings improved profits to the bottom line while enabling the vendor to assert that its mainframes and Power offerings provide customers with, among other benefits, satisfactory economic value.
If the Catalans and IBM can continue to make progress, Barcelona will enjoy enormous benefits from Sagrada Familia while IBM can expect to please its key stakeholders: investors, customers, and employees. In the long run, IBM’s future will, as the company has said, be shaped by its strategic imperatives, but it cannot easily reach that goal without a continued revival of its two sacred processor families. Similarly, the vitality of Barcelona and surrounding Catalonia will depend to an appreciable extent on the completion, in as timely a fashion as possible, of the remainder of Sagrada Familia.
Sagrada Familia is an unusual building. It is not at all a church with a traditional appearance. It is neither gothic nor baroque nor an example of any other classical style that visually refers to the Middle Ages or Renaissance. It is instead built adhering to the concepts and values of the more recent art nouveau, its structural and decorative structures imitative of livings things: most often plants, in the natural environment. Its roof is held up not by cylindrical pillars but rather by gently curved elements that resemble the trunks and branches of trees. Its many windows and other openings are designed to let in lovely Spanish sunshine are, like the vertical supports, and thus like flowering plants, delineated in graceful curves. Many decorative figures attached to or embedded in the structure are also drawn from nature. A visitor can spot reptiles, creatures that the building’s architect, Antoni Gaudi, liked, and which he similarly included in some of his other creations, including Barcelona’s majestic Park Guell.
The unique aesthetic of Sagrada Familia should come as no surprise to anyone the moment they hear to name. While many named churches bear the designation of a single person, such as St. Patrick, St. Basil, or Notre Dame de Paris, few are called by reference to a group. By contrast, Sagrada Familia has spires for each of the twelve apostles, for the Virgin Mary, for each of the four Evangelists, and for Jesus Christ. We have listed these towers in order of height; each is taller than those preceding it in our list.
Both of IBM’s processor families have unique features as original as those shaping Sagrada Familia. The computers may seem relatively ordinary compared to the structures designed by Gaudi, but that is due largely to the way IBM’s original work has been so widely copied. What was once obviously original has become commonplace, arguably because IBM’s computer architects created structures that others could not easily equal without swiping the creations of IBM’s two schools of computer development. If the architects designing cathedrals all copied Gaudi the way computer designers copied IBM’s mainframes and Power family systems, then after a while buildings like Sagrada Familia would hardly be unique.
Despite its renown, Sagrada Familia is unlikely to be copied, even if it influences other architectural work. It stands as an iconic example of the witty individualism that is a charming part of Catalan culture, but it is only one of many gifts this special environment has given the world. Catalonia’s cultural milieu provided the setting that allowed Salvador Dali to create his provocative art and to express his entertaining persona. It fostered the early visual experiments beloved by Pablo Picasso as the artist enlarged the realm of expression in Catalonia, across the rest of Spain, in France, and eventually around the whole world.
The playful, irreverent, witty, and sometimes provocative Catalonian humor shows up in other places. An excellent example is the caganer (pronounced ka-ga-NAY), which translates as crapper. It is a figurine, and its most popular form depicts a shepherd or peasant wearing a traditional red Catalan hat (sort of a beret) squatting and crapping. One of these figures is commonly placed in a Christmas crèche where it is partially obscured or hidden by other objects. Kids look for and of course find the caganer, to their amusement. In Catalan, the crèche is not a small scene based on a manger but usually a larger scene including other elements of a country setting or, sometimes a portion of the town of Bethlehem. Sometimes the person depicted as a caganer is a celebrity or political leader rather than a peasant. And at all times, not just at Christmas, you can buy a caganer on Amazon.com.
IBM, like Catalonia, may have its sacred families, and it certainly celebrates its legacy heritage, particularly when introducing a new generation of machines or reporting the results of a notably successful financial period. However, IBM does not have a caganer or any other similarly peculiar and humorous element tucked into its events or presentations. If it did, it would be unique among technology companies and, indeed, industrial companies of every species.
IBM’s older and most iconic sacred family is the mainframe, a descendant of the System/360 announced in 1964 and delivered, a model at a time, during the next three or four years. Some elements of today’s mainframe architecture are exact copies or simple extensions of features that defined the first System/360 machines. The most important aspect of the System/360 was its design as a family of machines spanning a wide range of performance. Each model had its own internal hardware that used microcode to build the surface seen by systems technologists as the System/360 architecture. The models were almost entirely consistent; only a relatively few differences differentiated the largest and most complex computer from the smallest and simplest. With each successive generation, beginning with the System/370, IBM used multiple core hardware implementations plus microcode to yield a family of processors. Much later IBM switched to standardized hardware that differed mainly in the number of internal processors per machine, with all the processors in a given generation working pretty much the same way. Generation after generation the mainframe began as a family and is a family of systems to this very day.
The history of the Power products, which today incorporates the descendants of two different midrange systems, is more complex and far less uniform. One of the current Power family’s parents is the RS/6000, built in 1990, derived to some extent from a 1980 RISC processor called the 801. IBM, working with Motorola, eventually boiled the Power design down to a chip (although Motorola and IBM Power chips were slightly different when ultimately brought to the market). This chip technology was adopted by Apple as an alternative to the Intel chip designs used by most PCs from other makers. Intel eventually overwhelmed the Power chips at the low end, and Apple migrated so it could offer customers more attractive desktop and laptop PCs. Intel’s gain might not be permanent, and Apple could at any time migrate again, perhaps to chips in the ARM range, perhaps to some other processor technology. It is possible but not very likely that Apple could even return to a Power type chip . . . if the Power solution offered performance and economic advantages no other circuits could match.
The other parent of today’s Power computers is the AS/400 and before that the System/38, midrange business systems that for many years were the most attractive platform for business uses who wanted to develop and use computers powered by an effective and efficient DBMS. Basically, the System/38 began life as a DBMS engine with applications processing layered on top. Today’s IBM i family tries to preserve some of its AS/400 nature, including support for ancient legacy applications (one they are recompiled or otherwise made compatible with current Power platforms) but also offers support for apps that have arisen in the Unix realm. Its roots, despite the many changes in implementation, still lie in a world that promises easy applications development and affordable software maintenance.
Even though IBM i customers increasingly use apps developed by commercial software vendors and leave maintenance to those suppliers, the promise of simplicity is still a part of the IBM i technology culture, helping keep the system as the second sacred family in historical terms but an equal of the mainframe when it comes to IBM’s effort to preserve a technological culture that is now in its third decade.
Thus in the commercial world of IBM and the cultural world of Catalonia, important achievements are defined by and in turn define sacred families. Each of these worlds has a vast and vital serious side. But, so far at least, only the Catalans are able to enjoy and respect the inspirational aspect of the sacred family while still enjoying a hearty laugh while hiding a caganer in a crèche.