Computing pioneer Gene Amdahl dies aged 92

November 13, 2015 // 1:24 p.m.

Tags: #amdahl-corporation #amdahls-law #business #gene-amdahl #ibm #mainframe #obituary #pioneer #system360

Mainframe computing pioneer and parallel-processing expert Gene Amdahl has died at the age of 92, his family have confirmed.

Born on the 16th of November 1922, Amdahl was responsible in partnership with Charles Davidson for the design of the Wisconsin Integrally Synchronised Computer (WISC), a digital system the pair proposed in 1950 and which was built in 1952 - the year Amdahl joined IBM for a brief period. During that time, Amdahl worked on a number of mainframe projects relating to the IBM 700 Family of systems, before leaving in 1955.

His departure, during which time he concentrated on radar projects, lasted until 1960 where he rejoined Big Blue to manage the System/360 architecture - a project which still exists today, with IBM's latest System Z mainframes boasting backwards compatibility with System/360 applications written as far back as the 60s. Soon, though, he had a hankering for running his own company, launching Amdahl Corporation in 1970 and leaving the company nine years later boasting $200 million in revenue and a claimed 22 per cent of the mainframe market.

His most famous work, though, is in the law that bears his name. Detailed in an academic paper published in 1967 entitled Validity of the single processor approach to achieving large scale computing capabilities, Amdahl's Law argues an upper limit on the performance increase that can be gained by shoving additional processing cores at a given task, even if theoretically highly-parellelisable - and is a big reason why modern desktop processors rarely offer more than eight cores.

In later life, Amdahl's projects were hampered by the shrinking mainframe market: Andor International, another Amdahl-founded company, would go bankrupt in 1995, while Fujitsu would snap up the last of Amdahl Corporation itself in 1997, running it briefly as a subsidiary before closing it entirely.

According to the New York Times, Amdahl died in a nursing home of pneumonia after five years of treatment for Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by his wife Marian, daughters Delaine and Andrea, son Carlton, brother Lowell, and five grandchildren.
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