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Icons of Progress

Information Management System

IBM100 Information Management System iconic mark

If we could put a man on the Moon, could we also create a computer program to track the millions of rocket parts it takes? In 1966, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contractor North American Aviation (later to merge with Rockwell Standard Corporation to become North American Rockwell and eventually Rockwell International) asked IBM that question. In response, in 1968 IBM launched the world’s first commercial database management system, called Information Control System and Data Language/Interface (ICS/DL/I). In 1969, it was renamed Information Management System (IMS).

More than 40 years later, the old IBM ® IMS™ slogan, “The world depends on it,” still holds true. Many of the largest corporations in the world rely on the system to run their everyday business. Indeed, more than 95 percent of the top Fortune 1000 companies use IMS to process more than 50 billion transactions a day and manage 15 million gigabytes of critical business data. And IBM continues to add new features to IMS to adjust to the changing IT world.

In the 1960s, United States President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to send an American safely to the Moon and back before the end of the decade. North American Rockwell won the bid to design and build the Saturn V rocket. But given the scope of construction involved, Rockwell needed an automated system that could keep track of the enormous amount of parts and materials—and get hold of data fast when it was needed. Enter a small team of IBM programmers who were working on the design of a high-performance, hierarchical database system that could retrieve, organize and store data quickly.

Working out of IBM’s Aerospace Division in Los Angeles, Vern Watts led the development of IMS. He had joined IBM in 1956 and ended up working continuously for the company (and on IMS) for 53 years. Software programming in those days was a small team effort, and the engineers had to make the first decisions about new products. On weekends, Watts would often be home with his head buried in a thick textbook. By Monday morning, he was the leading expert on the subject.

“One of the problems with being early in the programming business is that there was nobody around with more experience than you,” Watts said. “And a fairly simple program was still complex, because you didn’t have any system support. You had to do everything yourself.”

In 1966, Watts and the 12-member IBM team, along with 10 members of Rockwell and three members from Caterpillar Inc.—whose engines would supply the power for communications between the spacecraft and all of the NASA tracking stations around the world—went to work designing and developing the system that was called the ICS/DL/I. They built on the earlier efforts of IBMer Uri Berman who, along with Pete Nordyke of Rockwell, had developed an application that tracked the numerous parts and engineering changes involved in building the Apollo capsule.

The first release was completed and shipped in 1967. The following year, the software system was installed and delivered to NASA. And on August 14, 1968, the first “READY” message was displayed on an IBM 2740 typewriter terminal at the Rockwell Space Division at NASA in Downey, California.

And then with all eyes on the historic Moon landing on July 20, 1969, ICS was making its own history on a mainframe computer at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. The new database system kept track of the huge bill of materials for the Saturn V, which was composed of hundreds of thousands of parts.

The Apollo 11 Moon mission was one of the first major projects for which computerized information management tools were essential to its success. Following that achievement, ICS was renamed the Information Management System and was released commercially for IBM mainframes, starting with the IBM System/360.

The commercial product had two main parts: the database system supporting a hierarchical, tree-like structure data model; and transaction-processing software for handling complex, high-volume transactions, such as order entry, inventory management, payroll and claims processing, airline or hotel reservations, financial applications, and other transaction-oriented applications.

A unique feature of IMS was its “queued system”—meaning a system that essentially receives all transactions as they arrive and holds them until they can be processed. This way when, for example, an airline agent enters a transaction into his or her computer, the automated transaction manager takes care of updating the IMS so another ticket agent doesn’t sell the same seat.

The first IMS customers were other aerospace companies wanting to add online transaction capabilities. But by the late 1970s, with the retrieval, storage and updating of large volumes of data becoming a key requirement for most computer applications, new orders came in quickly from manufacturers, retailers, insurance companies and other industries. And in its first two decades, the customer investment in IMS applications grew to approximately 10 to 12 billion lines of code.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, IMS and the mainframes it ran underpinned the vast majority of banks and banking transactions worldwide, including automated teller machines (ATMs), which require near-continuous systems availability and extremely fast response times.

IMS financial customers include some of the largest financial institutions in the world; by the late 2000s, several Chinese banks had purchased IMS to support the country’s burgeoning financial industry, and IMS was seeing significant growth in India and Brazil.

And while IBM’s pioneering relational database management system—IBM DB2 ®—became an alternative approach for viewing and extracting value from data in different formats, IMS never lost its popularity as the transactional workhorse for very large workloads. IBM’s other transaction processor, IBM CICS ® (Customer Information Control System), was used for web services and online transactions. [Read more about this Icon of Progress] And in many cases these products work together, with IMS used as the back-end database, and CICS providing the front-end online interaction.

New functions and features have been added to IMS over the years in response to customer demand, and to keep up with even larger amounts of data and transactions. These improvements have included self-managing and self-healing functions that can help keep the system continuously available; service-oriented architectures that can provide better integration of business processes across the enterprise; and Java and XML programming language tools that can make the IMS platform more accessible to a broader range of IT professionals—some of whom weren’t yet alive when the 1969 Moon walk put IMS on the map.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Uri Berman Systems Engineer, credited with defining IMS technology
  • Carl Chamberlin Programmer
  • Don Lundberg Systems Engineer
  • Larry Morgan Programmer
  • Ed Morris Manager of the first IMS team
  • Vern Watts Chief Architect of IMS