The Project Silverlake started as a sequel to a predecessor project code-named Fort Knox. The Fort Knox project had a lofty goal of creating the ultimate minicomputer in response to the successes of Digital Equipment Corporation(DEC) in the early 1980s. It was given the code name Fort Knox after the location of the U.S. government’s gold depository.
The goal of Fort Knox was to unify several smaller IBM computers then on the market and put DEC and other competitors on the run. Due to a rigid development process, the specifications for creating this computer grew more complex as each day passed. By 1985, it became obvious that the development team was years away from a workable product for the market, and the project was canceled.
Fort Knox was to be the replacement for three computers that were developed and manufactured in IBM’s Rochester, Minnesota, facility. The future of close to 5,000 people that worked at the Rochester facility looked bleak. From their viewpoint, the cancellation of the Fort Knox project was an extreme move. Out of the ensuing chaos emerged one of the computer industry’s most successful development projects.
The necessary leadership came from an unlikely source. A handful of highly technical system designers formed an ad hoc group on their own and rapidly pulled together a plan. The lab director gave them permission to develop their ideas further, but the ground rules were rather unusual:
(*) The product they designed had to be on the market within two years.
(*) As much as possible was to be salvaged from the Fort Knox wreckage.
(*) A proof-of-concept prototype was needed.
(*) The design was to be created by a small team in a matter of months.
In March of 1986, less than a year after the ad hoc team had formed itself, IBM’s top management approved over $1 billion in funding for a new computer with the code name Silverlake. The two-year time frame was also dramatically shorter than normal. Historically, the development of a new product line usually took five years or more those days.
In June of 1988, only two months longer than planned, the AS/400 family of computers was introduced. AS/400 quickly became one of the most popular computer product lines ever introduced. It remains a major source of profitability for IBM even today.
The Silverlake project was highly ambitious, but strict controls were put in place to keep its scope under the reins. Instead of everything being invested from the ground up, key building blocks were taken from the completed parts of the Fort Knox project as well as from two of the products being replaced—the System 36 and the System 38 minicomputers. Major enhancements were pushed off until after the basic system became operational. A combination of great leadership, a tight schedule, rigid scope control, extensive reuse, and an exceptionally motivated project team led to one of the great success stories within the IT industry.
The success story of the industry's Hall of Fame computer system and some path-breaking management concepts re-invented can be found in this book.
Roy A. Bauer, Emilio Collar, Victor Tang, The Silverlake Project: Transformation at IBM. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN: 0195067541. Three major figures recount the history of Silverlake Project and the mid-range computer, AS/400.