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Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code

Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code (EBCDIC) is an 8-bit character encoding used mainly on IBM mainframe and IBM midrange computer operating systems.

EBCDIC descended from the code used with punched cards and the corresponding six bit binary-coded decimal code used with most of IBM's computer peripherals of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It is also employed on various non-IBM platforms such as Fujitsu-Siemens' BS2000/OSD, OS-IV, MSP, and MSP-EX, and Unisys VS/9 and MCP


EBCDIC was devised in 1963 and 1964 by IBM and was announced with the release of the IBM System/360 line of mainframe computers. It is an 8-bit character encoding, in contrast to, and developed separately from, the 7-bit ASCII encoding scheme. It was created to extend the existing binary-coded decimal (BCD) interchange code, or BCDIC, which itself was devised as an efficient means of encoding the two zone and number punches on punched cards into 6 bits.

While IBM was a chief proponent of the ASCII standardization committee, the company did not have time to prepare ASCII peripherals (such as card punch machines) to ship with its System/360 computers, so the company settled on EBCDIC. The System/360 became wildly successful, and together with clones such as RCA Spectra 70, ICL System 4, and Fujitsu FACOM, thus so did EBCDIC.

All IBM mainframe and midrange peripherals and operating systems use EBCDIC as their inherent encoding (with toleration for ASCII, for example, ISPF in z/OS can browse and edit both EBCDIC and ASCII encoded files). Software and many hardware peripherals can translate to and from encodings, and modern mainframes (such as IBM zSeries) include processor instructions, at the hardware level, to accelerate translation between character sets.

There is an EBCDIC-oriented Unicode Transformation Format called UTF-EBCDIC proposed by the Unicode consortium, designed to allow easy updating of EBCDIC software to handle Unicode, but not intended to be used in open interchange environments. Even on systems with extensive EBCDIC support, it has not been popular. For example, z/OS supports Unicode (preferring UTF-16 specifically), but z/OS only has limited support for UTF-EBCDIC.

IBM AIX running on the RS/6000 and its descendants including the IBM Power Systems, Linux running on z Systems, and operating systems running on the IBM PC and its descendants use ASCII, as did AIX/370 and AIX/390 running on System/370 and System/390 mainframes.

Compatibility with ASCII

The fact that all the code points were different was less of a problem for inter-operating with ASCII than the fact that sorting EBCDIC put lowercase letters before uppercase letters and letters before numbers, exactly the opposite of ASCII.

Software portability and data exchange are hindered by EBCDIC's lack of codes for several symbols (such as the brace characters) commonly used in programming and in network communications.

The gaps between some letters made simple constructions that worked in ASCII fail on EBCDIC. For example, 'Z' minus 'A' was 40, not 25. This sometimes caused problems when porting software from ASCII systems.

All ASCII codes stored within an 8-bit byte had nonnegative values on systems such as the PDP-11 that treated bytes as signed quantities. Software on those platforms often took advantage of that property, causing problems when it was ported to EBCDIC-based environments where many character codes had a 1 as the "sign" bit.

By using all 8 bits EBCDIC may have encouraged the use of the 8-bit byte by IBM, while ASCII was more likely to be adopted by systems with 36 bits (as five 7-bit ASCII characters fit into one word). As 8-bit bytes became widespread, ASCII systems sometimes used the "unused" bit for other purposes, thus making it more difficult to transition to larger character sets.

Codepage layout

The table below is based on CCSID 037, one of the code page variants of EBCDIC; it shows only the basic (English) EBCDIC characters. Characters 00–3F and FF are controls, 40 is space, 41 is no-break space (RSP: "Required Space"), E1 is numeric space (NSP: "Numeric Space"), and CA is soft hyphen. Characters are shown with their equivalent Unicode codes. Unassigned codes are typically filled with international or region-specific characters in the various EBCDIC code page variants, but the punctuation marks and other special characters, such as cent sign, are often moved around as well; only the letters and numbers and space have the same assignments in all EBCDIC code pages.

In each table cell below, the first row is an abbreviation for a control code or (for printable characters) the character itself; the second row is the Unicode code; and the third row is decimal value of the EBCDIC code.


Criticism and humor

Open-source-software advocate and hacker Eric S. Raymond writes in his Jargon File that EBCDIC was almost universally loathed by early hackers and programmers. The Jargon File 4.4.7 gives the following definition:

EBCDIC: /eb´s@·dik/, /eb´see`dik/, /eb´k@·dik/, n. [abbreviation, Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code] An alleged character set used on IBM dinosaurs. It exists in at least six mutually incompatible versions, all featuring such delights as non-contiguous letter sequences and the absence of several ASCII punctuation characters fairly important for modern computer languages (exactly which characters are absent varies according to which version of EBCDIC you're looking at). IBM adapted EBCDIC from punched card code in the early 1960s and promulgated it as a customer-control tactic (see connector conspiracy), spurning the already established ASCII standard. Today, IBM claims to be an open-systems company, but IBM's own description of the EBCDIC variants and how to convert between them is still internally classified top-secret, burn-before-reading. Hackers blanch at the very name of EBCDIC and consider it a manifestation of purest evil.

—?The Jargon file 4.4.7

EBCDIC design was also the source of many jokes. One such joke went:

Professor: "So the American government went to IBM to come up with an encryption standard, and they came up with—" Student: "EBCDIC!"

References to the EBCDIC character set are made in the classic Infocom adventure game series Zork. In the "Machine Room" in Zork II, EBCDIC is used to imply an incomprehensible language:

This is a large room full of assorted heavy machinery, whirring noisily. The room smells of burned resistors. Along one wall are three buttons which are, respectively, round, triangular, and square. Naturally, above these buttons are instructions written in EBCDIC...

A similar description can be found in the "Maintenance Room" in Zork:

This is what appears to have been the maintenance room for Flood Control Dam #3, judging by the assortment of tool chests around the room. Apparently, this room has been ransacked recently, for most of the valuable equipment is gone. On the wall in front of you is a group of buttons, which are labelled in EBCDIC. However, they are of different colors: Blue, Yellow, Brown, and Red.

Source: Wikipedia, Google