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Project Failures: IBM’s Stretch Computer

April 1, 2016 by

Success is something we all love and are always trying to propel ourselves towards, but do we focus on it too much? Is the holy grail of success that we are all attracted to blocking us from learning more important things which will develop us even further in those important areas of our lives?

 

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My point here is that perhaps, from time-to-time, we should take a look at failures, not necessarily our own, and try and learn something from them. With this in mind, I present to you the first in a series of blog posts aptly dubbed ‘Project Failures‘.

 

The first project in this series is IBM’s stretch computer project.

Project Failures: IBM’s Stretch Computer

1. The project

IBM (or International Business Machines) as I’m sure you’re all aware, is an American multinational technology and consulting corporation headquartered in New York, USA.

In 1956, a group of ambitious computer scientists set out to build the fastest super-computer the world had ever seen. It took them 5 years and a lot of man-hours, but they eventually produced the IBM 7030 affectionately known as ‘Stretch’.

Stretch was the fastest super-computer in the world, and held on to this title all the way to 1964. Capable of handling half a million instructions per second, surely you would think that Stretch was deemed a success by IBM?

Well, you’d be wrong.

 

2. Why it failed

Stretch was developed, produced and sold on the market as the fastest super-computer in the world, but it was nowhere near as fast as intended.

IBM began the production process looking to develop a computer that was 100 times faster than the system it was going to replace, but they fell well short of this target. Stretch was only 30-40 times faster.

Since it failed to reach its goal, IBM had to drop Stretch’s price to $7.8 million (from an intended $13.5 million) which meant the system was priced below cost. Only 9 Stretch computers were ever built and it was eventually taken off the market. IBM deemed Stretch a failure.

 

3. What we can learn from this

You’ve probably guessed it by now, but our number one learning from this case is the need to set realistic goals. You must be in-tune with the capabilities of the team before agreeing to certain project targets. Be ambitious yet realistic.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. While Stretch was a failure, it did introduce pipelining, memory protection, memory interleaving, and other technologies that have shaped the development of computers as we know them today. Every cloud has a silver lining!

 

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Ruairi O'Donnellan

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