Home history Information Management Systems Information Management Systems
Built to log rocket parts, this database management system powers billions of daily transactions in industries around the globe
Round white disc cover plate  from the cover of the IMS 360 brochure

Of all the new systems that helped to put the first humans on the moon in the 1960s, an inventory tracker was hardly the sexiest of the bunch. It was built to log rocket parts, a mundane if vital job among the thousands required for the lunar missions. By streamlining information on supplies, it helped launch Apollo 11 into space and kick-started the market for commercial database management systems here on Earth.

The Information Control System and Data Language Interface (ICS/DL/I) broadcast its first “READY” message on August 14, 1968, at the Rockwell Space Division at NASA in Downey, California. Requisitioned from IBM by Northern American Aviation (which later became Rockwell International), the prime contractor for the Apollo spacecraft and the second stage of the Saturn V launch rocket, the system tracked bills of material for millions of parts. It also managed versioning for engineering changes.

For the commercial market, IBM renamed the technology Information Management Systems and in 1968 announced its release on mainframes, starting with System/360. Industries eager for a simple, efficient way to process and manage data snapped up IMS — and companies around the world continue to rely on it for everyday business needs.

Industries eager for a simple, efficient way to process and manage data snapped up IMS
An urgent request to track parts

In 1963, IBM’s Uri Berman teamed with Rockwell’s Peter Nordyke to address an urgent request from the space program for a parts tracker and a version manager, designing a general-purpose type of software to meet the need. IBM operating system expert Vern Watts would build on Berman’s concepts to lead development for the software’s first release. For decades afterward he served as the system’s chief architect, earning him an outstanding technical achievement award from IBM and unofficial moniker of “Father of IMS.”

The team designing and building the original release included members from IBM, Rockwell and Caterpillar, which provided diesel generators for the space mission’s network of transmission stations. The first version shipped in 1967. A year later the system was delivered to NASA. IBM would soon launch a line of business called Database/Data Communications with IMS as the backbone.

The commercial product had two main parts: a database management system centered on a hierarchical data model, and software for processing high-volume transactions like automated teller machine (ATM) withdrawals and travel reservations. Before IMS, businesses and governments built their own database and transaction-processing tools. This created a hodgepodge environment of proprietary solutions that were often limited in scope and flexibility. IMS gave users a reliable, standardized and adaptable platform to use for transactions — as well as support from IBM.

IMS becomes the industry standard

IMS fast became a transactional workhorse and the database management system of choice across industries. In the 1970s, many manufacturers and retailers used it for everything from inventory management to processing sales. Banks like First National Bank in Dallas installed IMS to allow employees to pull data from across departments to help get a more complete picture of customers. This hub-and-spoke model of data access, orchestrated through IBM mainframes, proved attractive to many industries.

As a database management system, IMS was highly efficient — assuming that where to look for information was apparent. It required specialists in the system’s treelike data structure to hardcode instructions for each search, which proved to be an expensive and time-consuming activity for companies. If the data changed, queries often had to be re-written with new pointers to find them. Simple, repeatable tasks performed best.

On the transaction processing side, IMS worked seamlessly. Because it could queue transactions, or execute them in time order, it was ideal among industries like banking and airlines for which update sequencing is critical. It could also handle heavy message volumes, processing as many as 100,000 per second. Companies used it for functions like order entry, payroll and claims processing, and bank transactions.

Adaptability is the key to endurance

IMS’s high-touch, prescriptive database querying methods proved limiting over time, as customers demanded more flexible ways to access and manage their expanding universe of data. To fix this, Edgar Codd, an IBM scientist working at the San Jose Research Lab, proposed a new relational model for data using tables instead of data trees and unique keys instead of navigational pointers. His model was the foundation for several query languages, including SQL, which made it easier for non-experts to find information, and which powers most relational databases today.

Still, IMS survived — and thrived. By the late 1980s, the vast majority of financial institutions worldwide used IMS to manage everything from ATM transactions to credit card payments. By the late 2010s, seven of the top 10 companies in the financial sector, four of the top five insurance firms, three of the top five in industrials, and four of the top five in construction and farm machinery were all running IMS.

The success of IMS was built upon the platform’s adaptability, which enabled it to serve both long-time customers and new users with a broad range of dynamic functionality. IBM had made IMS compatible with a wide range of platforms, modifying it for mobile and cloud computing, while continuing to deliver stability and performance.

IMS remains a powerful, flexible low-cost platform, and even today, as the original slogan said, “The world depends on it.”

By the late 1980s, the vast majority of financial institutions worldwide used IMS to manage everything from ATM transactions to credit card payments
By the late 2010s, IMS was used by 7 of top 10  

companies in the financial sector

3 of top 5  

companies in industrial sector

4 of top 5  

companies in construction and farm machinery sector

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