The UNIVAC 1100 in the Early 70s

From Folklore
Jump to: navigation, search

Unisys History Newsletter.
Volume 1, Number 4
June 1993 (revised 1999)
by George Gray

The history of Unisys has many periods of disasters and missed opportunities, but if the past had been nothing but failure, Unisys would be gone from the computer marketplace by now, following the path of General Electric and RCA. There were prosperous times for both UNIVAC and Burroughs: the 1108 and the B5500 were notable successes, and both companies did well in the early 1970s. A set of UNIVAC 1100 account profiles from this period makes it possible to take a closer look at a time when companies and government agencies were actually switching from IBM and other vendors to UNIVAC. The account profiles cover thirty-five 1106 and four 1108 sites where a new computer had been acquired in the early 70s. There were eleven government agencies (local, state/provincial, and national), three universities, seven utility or communications companies, a savings and loan, and a newspaper. The other sixteen were various manufacturing and business enterprises. The UNIVAC replaced an IBM 360 or 370 at fourteen of these customers, Honeywell/GE computers at five, RCA at four, and Burroughs at two. The RCA replacements arose from UNIVAC's purchase of the RCA customer base in 1971. They are still significant, since those four companies could well have chosen IBM to stay with that architecture, instead of switching to the 1100. In two of these sites, the customer was converting from a UNIVAC III to an 1106.

Various strengths of the 1100 helped make these sales. EXEC 8 was superior to IBM's OS and DOS in several areas, including scheduling, the ability to handle a mix of batch and demand runs, time-sharing capabilities, and the simplicity of Executive Control Language (ECL) as compared with JCL. Programmers who had worked only on IBM sometimes thought they were being tricked when they were first shown an ECL runstream: it had to be more complicated than that. The existance of two operating systems (DOS and OS) was another disadvantage for IBM. Customers who wanted to move up to larger models in the IBM 370 hardware line were faced with a laborious conversion from DOS to OS, and some chose to convert to other vendors. By this time, UNIVAC was just about finished with its move from EXEC II to EXEC 8, and EXEC 8 was settling down to be a stable operating system.

UNIVAC had an advantage in its multiprocessor architecture, an area in which Burroughs was the only other serious contender. This permitted easier, incremental hardware upgrades and was the beginning of the road toward today's fully redundant systems. At this point, IBM was still several years away from delivering effective multiprocessor machines. This, combined with the scheduling flexibility of EXEC 8, meant that the 1106 outperformed IBM 370/135 and 370/145 computers in benchmarks done for several of these customers.

Yet another area of advantage for UNIVAC was remote job entry (RJE) capabilities. As early as 1964, the 1107 at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland had been linked to a 1004 at a hospital ten miles away, and the following year another 1004 one hundred miles away was also connected. By the end of the 1960s this capability was widely used, although 9200 and 9300 computers had displaced the 1004 as the preferred remote device. One of these new customers tied its 1106 in Missouri to remote 9200/9300s in Houston, Fort Worth, and Kansas, while another implemented a network of fourteen 9200s spread across a state.

In the area of software, the availability of DMS-1100 was a factor in twelve of these sales. While still in a very rudimentary form, it provided greater data handling capability than IBM's IMS. General Electric (and then Honeywell, after it acquired GE's computer business) was a more serious contender with its Integrated Data Store (IDS) developed by C.W. Bachman and others in the mid-1960s. Both IDS and DMS-1100 had the additional glamor of complying with the database standard of the Committe on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL), while IMS did not. Demonstrations of time-sharing programs accessing DMS-1100 databases impressed several of these customers and they became early users of it. At two other companies, an older data management tool, FMS-8, was a key factor in the choice of the 1100.

Since so many of these sales involved conversions, it is not surprising that conversion software, such as the 1401 simulator and the BAL to COBOL translator played an important role. At the time of these sales, few computer users had ventured far into transaction processing and screen formatting. This meant that most COBOL or FORTRAN programs were batch-oriented and thus relatively easy to convert. UNIVAC's edge over IBM in easy timesharing access also facilitated program conversions: program card decks could be read into disk files and changed with the ED processor, which seemed very powerful at the time.

UNIVAC did not have the advantage in every area. IBM was clearly ahead in disk drive technology. The 1100 series had just started using disks (as opposed to drums) in 1970, and the 8414 disk was a slow performer compared with IBM's 3330s. One of these customers had severe problems with its 8414s. Software was another area where UNIVAC was starting to have trouble. It is true that several of these sales did involve the availability of specific software packages on the 1100, such as geophysical programs for oil companies, computer assisted instruction (CAI), and the Integrated Civil Engineering System (ICES), however these were exceptional cases. The tide was already moving in the direction of IBM. Independent software companies were just getting started, and by the end of the 1970s they would create the situation which is familiar today: the mountain of program packages written specifically for IBM mainframes, compared with just a handful which will run on any other mainframe.

In the 1970s it was particularly troubling for UNIVAC that many U.S. government agencies developed IBM-only programs, instead of writing them in standard FORTRAN or COBOL. The Federal Highway Administration prepared a free package of transportation planning programs which could only run on the IBM 360/370. It was used by many cities and states. The UNIVAC marketing branch in Hartford had to write its own counterpart for the Connecticut Department of Transportation's 1106. Those programs were not used anywhere else and UNIVAC had to bear the development costs. When the Highway Administration and the Urban Mass Transportation Administration wrote a new package in the late 1970s, it was still IBM-only. It would be a few more years before the U.S. government moved to an approach which was based more in standards.

On the whole, however, this was a good period for UNIVAC. The 1106 and 1108 were selling at a brisk pace and a spirit of optimism is present in these account profiles. This was a time when computer users still had the flexibility to change vendors without incurring large conversion costs, but in the later 1970s and in the 1980s, users became locked into proprietary transaction and database systems. This meant that conversions became rare and frequently very painful when they did take place. Due to the complexity of these online systems, there was no CICS-to-TIP converter similar to the old batch BAL-to-COBOL package.

Conversions, when they did happen, were more often from UNIVAC to IBM. To some extent this was due to IBM's strong market position: switching to IBM was a way to join the mainstream and be standard. The corporate mergers of the 1980s often led to standardization on IBM, as happened when Piedmont Airlines, a strong 1100 site, was swallowed by all-IBM U.S. Air. Without a roster of the current customer base, it is difficult to say how many of these thirty-nine sites still have 1100 or 2200 series computers. Twelve are current members of USE, so we know that just about a third have stayed with Unisys over the past twenty years. But many of them are gone, and this erosion of its customer base was a major factor in all the predictions that Unisys would not survive the recession of 1991.

Now in the 1990s, with many companies moving their processing from mainframes to smaller computers or networked micros, the market is more open and Unisys once again has the opportunity to pick up new customers. In the competitive era of the early 1970's the success that UNIVAC had came from specific strengths, such as time-sharing, multiprocessing, and ease of use. For the competitive era of the 1990s, Unisys again has to work from strength. The leaders of the corporation say they intend to do that, and it will be interesting to see if they can.


The original version of the article on the Solid State Computer in the December 1992 issue said that IBM licensed the drum memory technology for its 650 computer from the ERA (St. Paul) division of Remington Rand. Actually, the situation was more complex than that. Prior to its acquisition by Remington Rand in December 1951, ERA did agree to design a drum for the 650. However, two groups within IBM started work on drum designs of their own, and the drum which was used on the 650 came primarily from the IBM efforts and included only a few of the design features from ERA. Interestingly, one of the tasks faced by the IBM designers was to avoid infringing a drum patent held by the Eckert-Mauchly (Philadelphia) division of Remington Rand. The article also gave the impression that the X-6 assembler for the Solid State was not widely used. Max Feuer has informed me that X-6 was in fact used extensively, because it was easier than machine code and there was less chance to make errors.


In response to the article on early UNIVAC 1100 operating systems, Jerry Reich has brought to my attention the operating systems written by Computer Science Corporation (CSC) for its Infonet time-sharing network. In the late 1960s, CSC developed CSCX, which was a highly modified EXEC II with time-sharing and multiprogramming capabilities. CSCX later evolved into the CSTS time-sharing system used on the Infonet 1100s throughout the 1970s. Commercial time-sharing networks were widespread during the 1960s and 1970s. The first one, established by Keydata Corporation in Boston in 1965, used a UNIVAC 491 to provide computerized invoicing and inventory control for various client companies, including a liquor distributor and a book publisher. Both CSC and UNIVAC set up networks using the 1108: CSC ordered twenty 1108s for this purpose in 1968. Of course many other time-sharing services were based on General Electric, IBM, and other hardware. For the most part, the commercial services died out as a result of the availability of low cost mini and micro-computers in the 1980s. It became cheaper for companies to buy their own small computer, rather than rent time from a service.


Unisys and UNIVAC are registered trademarks of Unisys Corporation. Copyright 1993, 1999 by George Gray