Vern Watts – In Memoriam

Vern Watts worked for IBM for over 45 years. Before his recent demise, he was like a professor emeritus at IBM Silicon Valley Lab, where he spent the last four decades. Before the lab opened in the mid-1970s he was at the Palo Alto development center. Vern is known to be the father of IMS (Information Management System), a DB/DC (Data Base, Data Communication) software developed by IBM during the late 1960s in co-operation with Rockwell International in Los Angeles.

This is how the legend goes. When President Kennedy declared that the US will put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s decade, much innovation work followed. Rockwell, being a defense contractor needed advanced ways of processing large volumes of data. Around then, separate subsystems to manage data was not there other than the file system, which was only records and bytes with no intelligence of the data inside the file system. “Give me the customer number” meant “read me bytes 26 till 35 in the record just read” – that intelligence was hardwired  inside the programs. The notion of “data independence” was felt important. That is how IMS was born, based on a hierarchical data model. Data was logically presented as an upside down tree structures (root above and leafs hanging below). One-to-many and many-to-many relationships were represented by this structure and navigation to specific information happened by following pointers. But the programmer was given a sub-language called DL/1 (Data Language 1)  for navigation from within programs written in high-level languages like PL/1 and Cobol.

I started my career at IBM Canada writing code in IMS and then being a faculty at the advanced education center in Montreal teaching IMS to Canadian customers during the 1970s. Hence for me, the creator of that system was like a God. Vern was that man. Subsequently when I moved to the Santa Teresa Lab (original name of Silicon Valley Lab) to work on DB2 during the 1980s, I had many interactions with Vern.

What strikes you when you meet Vern is his utter humility. He had no airs about him. He was a true technologist and had great passion for the IMS product. Vern was a man of few words, always creating new ideas in his silence. For those who may not know, IMS brings about a $1 Billion revenue  for IBM. Major banks, airlines and manufacturing shops still run their mission-critical systems using IMS. Relational databases came later and borrowed heavily from the practical experience of IMS usage (at least at IBM).

During last six months, I had the opportunity to become an advisor to a start-up company where Vern was the chief architect. It so happened that I had met him just about two weeks before his passing away. It was the same Vern, who spoke the truth and minced no words in expressing his opinion on technical matters. I felt very humbled being with Vern after so many years and listening to his pearls of wisdom.

My salutations to you Vern for enriching the world of database software!

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