What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation?

What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation?

Digital Equipment Corporation was perhaps the second most important computer company in history, behind IBM. Its minicomputers challenged IBM, and, indeed, Unix first ran on a DEC PDP-7. DEC’s Alpha CPU was one of the few chips to make Intel nervous for its x86 line. It created the first really good Internet search engine. In a just and perfect world, DEC would still be dominating. Instead, it faded away in the 1990s. What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC?

There’s a short answer and a long answer.

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Advantages and disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1

Advantages and disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1

I’ve talked a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of old milestone operating systems. But what were the advantages and disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1? That’s a fair question.

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Phase-change memory could change everything

I won’t call it a revolution, because I wrongly predicted that RISC (in the form of DEC Alpha and Motorola/IBM Power PC) would start a revolution. But Micron released a new form of memory this week that promises to at least be a game-changer.

It’s non-volatile like the flash memory in your cell phone, digital camera, or SSD, but with a longer life expectancy, and it’s much faster. It’s fast enough to potentially use it for system memory, as well as storage.
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Microsoft: No x86 apps for ARM

So, The Register reports that Windows on ARM will not have compatibility with apps compiled for x86. Intel has been saying this for a while, while Microsoft has been mum. So now we know.

There are arguments both for and against having an x86 emulation layer.
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Windows, ARM, emulation, misconceptions and misremembered history

I keep reading stuff about Windows and ARM and, well, I think people just aren’t remembering history.

I’m not saying that Windows 8 on ARM will save the world, or even change it substantially. It probably won’t, since Microsoft tends not to get things right the first time. But will I automatically write off the project? No. It could prove useful for something other than what it was originally intended. That happens a lot.

But I’m more interested in clearing up the misinformation than in trying to predict the future.
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Weekly roundup: 6 Oct 2010

I used to do a weekly roundup every so often, just doing short takes on stuff that interested me as I found it. I haven’t done that in years; I thought I’d give it a whirl again. I don’t know how often I’ll do it, but it was fun.

Ars Technica says Intel’s neutral stance on Atom in servers is a mistake. Absolutely. A dual-core Atom gives plenty of power for infrastructure servers like Active Directory DCs, print servers, and other similar roles. Atoms could even handle many web server tasks.

Xeons are appropriate for database servers and application servers, but throwing them at everything is severe overkill. A lot of server tasks are more disk-bound or network-bound than CPU-bound.

I worked in a datacenter facility for several years that was literally at half capacity, physically. But they didn’t have enough power or cooling capacity to add much more to it.

The only way anything can be added there is to take something away first. Right-sizing servers is the only way to fix that. If they would yank a Xeon, they’d be able to replace it with several Atom-based servers and get a net gain in functionality per square foot and BTU.

Virtualization, a la VMWare, is an option, but one isn’t necessarily a drop-in replacement for the other.

Or, of course, Intel can sit back and wait for ARM to come in and save the day. ARM provides even more functionality per watt. And even though ARM doesn’t run Windows, it does run Linux, and Samba has reached the point where it can stand in for an Active Directory domain controller.

Is there a market out there for a domain controller that fits in a package the size of a CD/DVD drive and consumes less than 20 watts? I’m sure there is. And if Intel doesn’t want to deliver it, ARM and its partners can.

There may be some resistance to ARM, since some decision makers are nervous of things they haven’t heard of, but it should be possible to overcome that. Maybe you haven’t heard of ARM, but guess what? Do you have a smartphone? It has an ARM CPU in it. That PDA you carried before you had a smartphone? It had an ARM CPU in it. It’s entirely possible that your consumer-grade network switch at home has one in it too. Not your router, though. That’s probably MIPS-based. (MIPS is another one of those scary RISC CPU architectures.)

Put a solid operating system on an ARM CPU, and it can run with anything. I have ARM devices that only reboot when the power goes out. If it weren’t for tornado and thunderstorm season causing the power to hiccup, those devices could run for years without a reboot or power-down.

And speaking of ARM, I have seen the future.

Pogoplug is an ARM-based appliance for sharing files. You plug it in, plug USB drives into it, and share files on your home network and the Internet with it. At least, that’s how it’s marketed. But you can hack it into a general purpose Linux box.

Inside, there’s a 1.2 GHz ARM CPU, 256 MB of RAM, and another 256MB of flash memory. Not a supercomputer, but that’s enough power to be useful. And it’s tiny, silent, and sips power. You can plug it in, stash it somewhere, and it’ll never remind you that it’s there.
I’ve actually considered picking up a Pogoplug or two (they go on sale for $45 occasionally, and the slightly less powerful Seagate Dockstar is available for about $30 when you can find them) to run this web site on. Considering how surprisingly well WordPress runs on a 450 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM (don’t ask me how I know), I think a Pogoplug could handle the workload.

What stops me? I can build an Atom-based PC for less than $150, depending on what I put in it, and run Turnkey Linux on it. Under a worst-case scenario, Turnkey Linux installs in 15 minutes, and it doesn’t take me any longer than that to drop a motherboard and hard drive into a case. So I can knock together an Atom-based webserver in 30 minutes, which is a lot less time than it would take me to get the LAMP stack running on an ARM system.

But if I had more time than money, I’d be all over this.

A device similar to this with an operating LAMP stack on it ready to go is probably too much to ask for. A ready-to-go image running the LAMP stack, similar in form to the DD-WRT or Tomato packages that people use to soup up their routers, might not be. I think it’s a good idea but it isn’t something I have time to head up.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Turnkey Linux before. I’ve played with it a little, and I’m dead serious that it installs in 15 minutes or less. Installing off a USB flash drive, it might very well install in five.

And it’ll run pretty happily on any PC manufactured this century. More recent is better, of course, but the base requirements are so modest they aren’t worth mentioning.

I’ve built dozens of Linux servers, but this is fantastic. Spend a few minutes downloading an image, copying it onto installation media, and chances are the installation process will take less time than all of that does.

It’s based on Ubuntu LTS, and comes in literally 38 flavors, with more to come after the next refresh is done.

They haven’t built their collection based on the current version of Ubuntu LTS yet because they’ve been distracted with building a backup service. But that’s OK. Ubuntu 8.04.3 still has a little life left in it, and you can either do a distribution upgrade after the initial install, or build a new appliance when the new version comes out and move the data over.

And if Ubuntu isn’t your thing, or you really want 10.04 and you want it now, or worse yet, Linux isn’t your thing, there’s always Bitnami (bitnami.org).

Linux appliances took a little while to get here, but they’re here now, and they work.

Words to live by

I do what I do, and I don’t plan how I ought to do it. I never have. I don’t believe in being rigid about anything. If I see an opportunity, I will drop all the rules, even when doing so is probably a mistake. –John Cocke, inventor of RISC
I’d never heard of John Cocke until he died, but that figures. Since I didn’t major in CS or EE, there are a lot of important people I’ve never heard of. But the father of virtually every non-x86 CPU still standing died this past week at age 77. Like many geniuses, he was eccentric and didn’t like to be bothered with mundane, everyday stuff. And like many geniuses, he didn’t think about his methods much. Read more

Another RISC platform for Linux

Vintage workstations. I’ve read two articles this past week about running Linux or another free Unix on vintage hardware.
http://www.debianplanet.org/article.php?sid=605
http://www.newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=02/02/19/049208&mode=thread

And while I can certainly appreciate the appeal of running a modern free Unix on a classic workstation from the likes of DEC or Sun or SGI, there’s another class of (nearly) workstation-quality hardware that didn’t get mentioned, and is much easier to come by.

Apple Power Macintoshes.

Don’t laugh. Apple has made some real dogs in the past, yes. But most of their machines are of excellent quality. And most of the appeal of a workstation-class machine also applies to an old Mac: RISC processor, SCSI disk drives, lots of memory slots. And since 7000-series and 9000-series Macs used PCI, you’ve got the advantage of being able to use cheap PC peripherals with them. So if you want to slap in a pair of 10,000-rpm hard drives and a modern SCSI controller, nothing’s stopping you.

There’s always a Mac fanatic out there somewhere willing to pay an exhorbinant amount of money for a six-year-old Mac, so you won’t always find a great deal. Thanks to the release of OS X (which Apple doesn’t support on anything prior to the Power Mac G3, and that includes older machines with G3 upgrade cards), the days of a 120 MHz Mac built in 1996 with a 500-meg HD and 32 megs of RAM selling for $500 are, fortunately, over. Those machines run Linux surprisingly well. Linux of course loves SCSI. And the PPC gives slightly higher performance than the comparable Pentium.

And if you’re lucky, sometimes you can find a Mac dirt-cheap before a Mac fanatic gets to it.

The biggest advantage of using a Mac over a workstation is the wealth of information available online about them. You can visit www.macgurus.com to get mainboard diagrams for virtually every Mac ever made. You can visit www.everymac.com for specs on all of them. And you can visit www.lowendmac.com for comprehensive write-ups on virtually every Mac ever made and learn the pitfalls inherent in them, as well as tips for cheap hardware upgrades to squeeze more speed out of them. I learned on lowendmac.com that adding video memory to a 7200 increases video performance substantially because it doubles the memory bandwidth. And on models like the 7300, 7500, and 7600, you can interleave the memory to gain performance.

Besides being better-built than many Intel-based boxes, another really big advantage of non-x86 hardware (be it PowerPC, Alpha, SPARC, MIPS, or something else) is obscurity. Many of the vulerabilities present in x86 Linux are likely to be present in the non-x86 versions as well. But in the case of buffer overflows, an exploit that would allow a hacker to gain root access on an Intel box will probably just crash the non-x86 box, because the machine language is different. And a would-be hacker may well run into big-endian/little-endian problems as well.

http://homepages.ihug.com.au/~aturner/7200boot.html

Linux on a Power Mac 7500

I built a Linux box earlier this week. There was a Power Mac 7500 at work that was begging for a conversion. Actually it’s a classic Hackintosh, assembled from the pieces of a 7500 and a dead 7600, so it’s running at 133 MHz instead of its original 100 MHz, and with 128 megs of interleaved EDO RAM. And it’s SCSI. So it had plenty of memory, a server-grade disk, and a RISC-based CPU. I had to see what it could do once it was unencumbered by the Mac OS GUI.
I chose Debian, because Debian installs very little extraneous garbage and because it’s super-simple to maintain.

And I’ll never complain about the difficulty of installing Linux on a PC again. Not that I’ve complained in a really long time, but Linux on an old Mac is a pain.

It’s nearly impossible to make these old Macs boot Linux directly, so you do a dual-boot trick, installing MacOS and then installing BootX, which is a control panel that pops up early in the boot process and asks you what OS you want. The default is Linux. Pick Linux, or let it time out, and that annoying smiling guy disappears, replaced by the glorious text-mode (bet you didn’t know the Mac had one of those, did you?) screen of the Linux boot process. Oh yeah, there’s a smiling picture of Tux up in the right-hand corner while it’s all going on. It’s a cool Wizard of Oz-like effect, I think.

So you boot off your MacOS CD, make yourself a 20-meg Mac partition, install just the base OS and the multimedia stuff, which includes the Apple CD/DVD-ROM driver–I didn’t realize that wasn’t part of the base OS and was wondering why I couldn’t read CD-ROMs anymore. Then search the CD for Stuffit Expander and Disk Copy. You’ll need those too. The version of Stuffit that came bundled with MacOS 8.5 couldn’t do anything with BootX on the Debian CD, so you’ll need to find a newer version on another Mac and then sneakernet it over. Then you use Disk Copy to generate images of the boot and root CDs. Drop BootX in System Folder::Control Panels, drop the Debian Kernel in the Linux Kernels subfolder of the System Folder, insert your Debian CD, then boot off the floppies, and you’re ready to go.

Apple hardware–old Apple hardware at least–is generally pretty reliable, so if you’ve got ancient Macs at work you need to put to something useful, this is a good way to do it. They’ll give better file server performance than a Snap server and you can even do software RAID configurations. Old desktop Macs have two 3.5″ bays, so you can mirror disks, and there is an external SCSI port for expansion if you want to do other types of RAID or connect a tape drive. And they’d make great intranet servers.

What did I do with the Mac? I made it into a PDF server. It’s great. I print to the phantom printer, and PDFs pop up in its file share. It’s lightning fast–by the time I pop over to the share to pick up the file, the server’s had enough time to create the PDF. So this 133 MHz Mac running Linux can generate PDFs in less time than it would take to print the file. I had problems with the GNU Ghostscript package (gs), so I ended up having to use Aladdin Ghostscript (aladdin-gs) instead. No big deal to me, since I’m not a GNU bigot.

I tried to make the service available to the Macs on the network too, by installing netatalk, but the phantom printer doesn’t work right. I’m still hoping to resolve that. Making shares with netatalk is frighteningly simple, but making printers with it is less fun than configuring XFree86 by hand.

Even with the difficulties, Charlie and I had it working well for Windows clients in a couple of hours. I think it was a good investment of a couple of hours, taking a computer off the scrap heap and making something useful out of it without having to buy any software.

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