[vcf-midatlantic] an unexpected mainframe experience

Dave McGuire mcguire at neurotica.com
Fri Aug 17 12:45:54 EDT 2018

  Earlier this week, I traveled to a large factory in a small, sleepy
town in western NY.  One of my clients is having some equipment built
there, and he asked me to help resolve a production problem with a
control board.  What he's having built there is not computer related.
The factory is a contract manufacturer; they make things for many
different customers, primarily doing metal fabrication and coatings.

  When I walked out onto the production floor, I very nearly tripped
over my own feet when I saw this:


  Now, it was first thing in the morning (I'm not built for mornings,
I'm up at the crack of noon most of the time) and I hadn't slept all
that well in the hotel, but I knew damn well that those were,
unmistakably, front doors for IBM z14 mainframes.

  In the course of my work addressing my client's control board problem,
I had a bit of time during which I was waiting for one thing or another,
so I chatted with the staff a bit.  It turns out that this company has
been making racks and doors for IBM for decades.  Somewhat
embarrassingly, several people gathered around me excitedly when the
word spread that there was a visitor in the building who actually works
on the machines for which they build the enclosures.  They all knew they
were making stuff for IBM, and that they were for some big computer
thing, but most of them were very confused about what they really were.
("How is THAT a computer?  Where's the mouse?")

  These folks were fascinated to hear about where the big metal racks
and doors they build and paint eventually end up.  I told them a bit
about what the machines are, how they work, and what they're used for.
They all listened with great interest, and some were very excited about
it.  They told me their stories too...they remembered every model number
("Hey Mary, do you remember the z890 with that beautiful copper trim on
the front?" "Oh yes Jim, I loved that one!") and they told great stories
about the fun they'd had building them all.

  Interestingly, the front and back doors of the machines are shipped
straight from that factory to the customer when a mainframe is ordered.
IBM never sees them.  So there's great trust there, because those doors
have to be flawless.  The frames and racks get sent to IBM in
Poughkeepsie to be built out, but the doors go straight from this
factory out to the customer every time IBM sells a mainframe.

  I was asked to be very careful about what I say about what I saw
there, but I will say this: There were A LOT of z14 doors being made
there.  Many people believe that the production volume of these machines
is small.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Seriously, I was

  I'm told there was a "secret area" in another part of the building
where they're making chassis for prototypes and machines that haven't
been released yet; I wasn't allowed to see that.  Overall the access
control there was pretty tight.  I wasn't allowed to take many pictures,
those that I did take were carefully audited by my escort, and some were
deleted.  They take their customers' security very seriously there, but
they were still human beings, people who love their jobs (pretty unusual
in this day and age), many of whom had worked there for decades.  They
take great pride in the things that they build there, and there was a
universal feeling that they wondered where it all eventually went, and a
hope that they'd gotten the machines off to a good start.

  It was a wonderful experience that I will not soon forget.


Dave McGuire, AK4HZ
New Kensington, PA

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